(The Center Square) – A bill that would allow state residents with concealed carry permits to legally carry guns at places of worship that share property with private K-12 schools cleared the North Carolina House on Thursday.
It is legal for licensed handgun owners to carry in places of worship, but Senate Bill 43 would expand the right. Concealed carry permit holders would be able to protect themselves during worship but not during school activities or other activities involving minors. It would not apply to properties that ban guns.
The House approved the measure, 70-38, on Thursday. Republicans said the change in law would give worshippers the ability to protect themselves from deadly attacks. One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Jeffrey McNeely, R-Iredell, referenced mass shootings at Texas and South Carolina churches.
"The Lord has asked us to stop evil in whatever form it comes. Dylann Roof, who killed people, nine of them, in Charleston was apprehended in Shelby, North Carolina," McNeely said. "They could have come to a church here and done the same thing. Would they have been able to protect themselves? With the law the way it is now, there's a good chance not."
Roof killed nine churchgoers in 2015 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Jack Wilson, a firearm instructor, fatally shot a gunman, Keith Thomas Kinnunen, in 2019 after Kinnunen killed two churchgoers at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas.
There are more than 530 churches with schools in North Carolina, McNeely said.
Opponents of the bill argued that churches could hire security or call on law enforcement for more protection instead of risking additional tragedy from misfires. The North Carolina Council of Churches sent a letter to lawmakers opposing similar legislation. It was signed by 132 church leaders across the state. They said it could create more tragedies at churches, arguing it could lead to accidents and "chaotic shootouts." Proponents of the measure argue additional security could be costly for places of worship.
Rep. James Gailliard, D-Nash, said he opposed the bill because statistics show the policy change is unnecessary. Considering that churches usually meet on Sundays and the limited number of shootings at the state's 10,000 churches over the past five years, Gailliard believes church shootings are a "nonissue."
"Let me be very clear. Every church shooting is one church shooting too many, but let's look at the real data around church shootings," Gailliard said.
SB 43 also would allow concealed handgun permit holders who are employed by a law enforcement agency but are not sworn officers to carry a handgun into a law enforcement agency in certain instances.
The Senate must now review and approve the amended bill before it can be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper.