LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Arkansas House voted overwhelmingly Monday to allow people to carry concealed weapons into churches, synagogues and mosques, as long as the place of worship has given the OK.
Lawmakers voted 85-8 to pass a bill that would leave it up to individual places of worship to decide whether to allow concealed handguns and who could carry them. The measure already cleared the Senate last month, but it will now head back to that chamber for a vote on the addition of new sponsors to the bill before going to the governor's desk.
Gov. Mike Beebe plans to sign the legislation into law, according to his spokesman, Matt DeCample. The Democratic governor also wants to work with legislators to develop another bill to address concerns that insurers could raise the premiums of churches that opt to allow concealed handguns, DeCample said.
"We've had some different churches bring some concerns about that," he said, adding that the governor was not yet suggesting specific proposals.
The legislation does not directly address any liability issues, but supporters of the bill said that such concerns were unlikely to be realized.
"Private contractual relationships, such as those between the insurer and insured, can be altered at any time by mutual agreement," said Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, on the House floor. "There is simply no logical reason to believe that insurance companies would single out Arkansas churches for such draconian policy changes when they have not done so in other states."
Arkansas is one of 10 states that allows concealed handguns but specifically prohibits them in churches, according to the National Rifle Association.
Mena, a House sponsor of the bill, framed it as an issue of First Amendment religious rights, telling his fellow lawmakers that it was "time for us, as politicians, to get our collective noses out of the religious affairs of churches and to allow the churches themselves to make their own theological decisions."
Rep. Reginald Murdock is one of eight lawmakers, all Democrats, who voted against the measure.
"The constituency that I represent has been very vocal against having this," Murdock said. "They think it's going to open them up to more problems and more liability."
Regardless of whether insurers choose to raise the premiums of churches that opt to allow concealed handguns, Murdock said, the bill is likely to cause problems for all churches.
"You can't just put this out there without having an education part of it, "he said "Because some people will see the headline and just think that they can bring their guns to church. I don't think many people are going to go through the process of calling individual places to check."
The guns in church bill is one of several proposals Arkansas lawmakers are considering this session aimed at loosening gun restrictions and promoting Second Amendment rights.
The House unanimously approved last month a non-binding resolution that urges the federal government and other policymakers not to limit Second Amendment rights.
Another proposal would keep secret the list of Arkansas residents licensed to carry concealed handguns. Under current state law, Arkansas releases only the names and ZIP codes of concealed carry permit holders.
Several lawmakers are also pushing legislation that would allow employees of a university to carry concealed weapons on campus. The sponsor of that bill, Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, said he plans to bring it before the House education committee next week.
Michael Stratford can be reached at www.twitter.com/mstratford