It’s easy to laugh from afar at stories like this one:
"Wisconsin Catholic bishops are asking parishioners to avoid carrying guns into church, now that a new law permitting residents of the state to carry concealed weapons has gone into effect."
I myself have snarked when states such as Louisiana or Arkansas have considered legalising guns in church. The idea must seem particularly absurd when viewed from the UK, where gun laws are strict. Here in Wisconsin, though, it’s no joke. It’s a huge headache.
Let’s be clear about the situation. First of all, Wisconsin is not the Wild West. Nor, despite its proximity to Chicago, does it have a rich tradition of gangsterism. In fact, until the new law took effect, Wisconsin was one of only two states in the nation banning concealed carry. And while "open carry" – displaying a weapon on a side holster, for example – is legal, it’s never been part of tradition, as it is in some places in the south.
So despite the headlines, Wisconsinites are hardly bloodthirsty savages clamouring to arm themselves to the teeth. Certainly there’s been no rabid upsurge among Christians. It’s really only a very small number of people who wanted concealed carry. Unfortunately, they happen to be backed by conservative dogmatists in the Republican party of Wisconsin. You will be safe and even receive a warm welcome should you visit America’s Dairyland. Still, to be on the safe side, I would exercise caution the next time the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears square off at Lambeau Field.
To be fair, even in the south, where guns are more accepted as part of everyday life, most people don’t see the need to bring them to church. Unlike other states, where concealed carry is specifically prohibited in places of worship, Wisconsin’s new law allows it anywhere except for specific locations. It’s banned within 1,000 feet of a school, at public parks and at some government buildings.
But there are some very difficult provisions in the law. School zones, for example, do not apply to private property. Even though our house and a few others are within 1,000 feet of our son’s school, concealed carry would be legal on our property – just not on the road in front of the school. Landlords cannot prohibit gun possession in rental properties, and government agencies can set their own rules. This leads to absurd situations such as in the Wisconsin Legislative Assembly, where you are permitted to bring a gun into the public gallery, but you can be ejected for toting a camera.
To make matters worse, nobody can do anything about weapons secured in parked cars. If a church or a business chooses to say no to guns on its premises, pistol-packers can legally stow the weapon just outside in their glove compartment.
In order to ban concealed carry, a property owner has to post signs announcing the rules. This no simple matter: since the law is vague on the requirement, it means consulting with a lawyer for guidance.
And while a church or a business is permitted to ban weapons, it can be held liable if it fails to enforce the rules. The law is again a bit murky, but the general drift is that if you know someone has a gun and don’t do anything about it, you can be sued should they shoot someone on your property. Meanwhile, organisations that don’t prohibit are absolved of any responsibility, which falls solely on the armed citizen. This is perhaps the most controversial provision of the new law, and it is unlike any other in the nation. It is hard to see it as anything other than an attempt to get guns into as many places as possible. It makes it very difficult for any organisation to ban guns, particularly small churches like my own, which simply don’t have the resources to check for weapons, and who have no stomach for confronting fellow members.
Which brings us back to the bishops. They’re trying to evade some responsibility by leaving it up to local parishes to decide if they’ll ban guns or not: since the dioceses own the buildings, they could presumably make the rule themselves. But, ultimately, they’ve come to the same conclusion as my church and many others, both liberal and conservative. An official ban would be too onerous to enforce and potentially risky. Better, then, to skip the legal pronouncements and try to set an informal expectation that Christians leave their pistols, hunting knives, crossbows and other deadly weapons at home.
So it is that on Sunday morning I will climb into the pulpit at Salem United Church of Christ – the very name of which is derived from the Hebrew word for peace – and beg my congregants, despite what the law says and for the sake of all that is holy – not to pack heat on Sunday morning. As I do so, I’m sure I will wonder how it has come to this, and I will think fondly of the sanctuaries I visited in England, where the most dangerous things to be found are a boring sermon and those damned narrow kneelers.
* With apologies to Johnny Cash.
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