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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — It may soon be easier to legally carry handguns into places of worship in Texas.
A new state law borne out of the deadly attack in a Texas church strikes down a provision in current law that says handguns are not allowed in churches, synagogues, or other places of worship.
The new law attempts to clear up what one state lawmaker calls “confusion.”
“The purpose of my bill was to give clarity that you can carry in church unless the church says posts a sign that says ‘You May Not Carry” State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said Wednesday.
Campbell authored Senate Bill 535 following the attack at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a town of around 650 residents a few dozen miles outside San Antonio.
As a gunman opened fire in the church on Nov. 5, 2017, a neighbor grabbed his rifle and chased the suspect. Stephen Willeford was honored as a hero by the Texas Senate in January.
“The best defense with a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Campbell said, adding that something had to change after the attack.
“There needed to be clarity, I mean look what stopped the massacre: a good guy with a gun acting quickly,” Campbell said. “Can you imagine if somebody had a gun sitting in the pew, how many lives would’ve been saved?”
A month after the shooting, which left 26 dead and 20 others hurt, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion on carrying weapons in churches in the state.
“Unless a church provides effective oral or written notice prohibiting the carrying of handguns on its property, a license holder may carry a handgun on church property as the law otherwise allows,” Paxton wrote in Dec. 2017.
Campbell said her legislation aligns Paxton’s opinion with state statute.
“We need to be able to carry and protect and defend ourselves and our family and our community,” she explained.
The bill was signed into law by the Governor and takes effect on Sept. 1. It has earned mixed reviews, passing largely along party lines in the House and with bipartisan support in the Senate.
“I feel like it’s just such a violation of our Christian beliefs to have a gun in church,” Rev. Katheryn Barlow-Williams, pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Austin.
Some church leaders, like Barlow-Williams, argue opting in or out of a weapon signage system or allowing gun owners to carry in church do not solve greater safety concerns.
“The problem with that is when police do come in, the experts come in, the people who know what they’re doing come in, they don’t know if the person with a gun is the active shooter hurting people or protecting people,” Barlow-Williams, acknowledging that her views on guns in houses of worship may be in the minority around the state.
Some churches have hired private security, or worked with law enforcement to have officers present at services.
Law enforcement officers are located near the entrance to St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin for services, according to Rev. Dr. Chuck Treadwell, the church’s rector.
“We have parishioners who don’t like it,” Treadwell said. “And I don’t personally like it either, but we have come to a conclusion as a church leadership that is the right thing to do for now.”
“Our church is kind of torn. It is torn about having an armed officer on campus,’ Treadwell stated. “It makes us sad, it breaks our heart to think that we are in an environment where we feel like that’s the prudent thing to do.”
The church has hosted two recent trainings on Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events (CRASE).
“Other members of other churches have joined us for those trainings as well, across the city,” Treadwell explained. “Episcopalians and other denominations as well.”
Some church leaders said because they already have signs posted, the new law won’t change how they operate. Treadwell said it’s important to his congregation to talk openly about safety.
“It’s crucially important to continue to think about ‘How do we keep everybody safe and also protect a loving welcoming environment,” he added. “I think it just requires regular attention for that to be true.”
Barlow-Williams said to her knowledge, her parishioners have no intentions of reversing course.
“It’s a practical reason and a theological reason that we are against guns in churches or any law that would reduce the fines or the time served for breaking our preference to have guns in the church.”
The legislation also lessens the penalty from a Class A misdemeanor, which comes with possible jail time and fines up to $4,000. Violators of the posted signs or verbal notice face a Class C misdemeanor, amounting to a $200 fine.
Steffi Lee contributed to this report.