Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law a bill allowing guns in churches and expanding permitless carry on Friday despite strong opposition by gun control advocates.
The "Mississippi Church Protection Act," or House Bill 786, was approved by the Mississippi House last week by a majority vote.
The law allows any church or place of worship to create a security program that would permit certain members to carry firearms to protect congregation members. It also expands permitless carry, also known as constitutional carry, to belt and shoulder holsters.
"The governing body of any church or place of worship may establish a security program by which designated members are authorized to carry firearms for the protection of the congregation of such church or place of worship, including resisting any unlawful attempt to kill a member(s) or attendee(s) of such church or place of worship, or to commit any felony upon any such member or attendee in the church or place of worship or in the immediate premises thereof," the new law states.
The legislation was authored by State Rep. Andy Gipson in response to a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina last year that left nine dead, including the pastor, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
There was a contentious battle over the bill, with pro-Second Amendment groups claiming law-abiding residents should not need government approval for concealed carry and gun control groups claiming the bill would make Mississippians less safe.
"Gov. Bryant stood strong for the Second Amendment by signing this significant bill, in spite of billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s attempts to spread lies about it," Chris W. Cox, the executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), said in a prepared statement. "It’s a great day for law-abiding gun owners in Mississippi. This will allow them to carry firearms for personal protection in the manner that best suits their needs."
Moms Demand Action, which is part of the Everytown for Gun Safety group led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, fought the legislation and urged Bryant to veto the legislation. The group said Bryant was disregarding the will of the people and claimed, "Eighty-three percent of Mississippians and 89 percent of Mississippi gun owners believe that a permit should be required to carry a concealed handgun in public."
The gun control group did not issue a statement following Bryant’s action. Before the bill was signed into law, Shirley Hopkins Davis, volunteer leader of the Mississippi Chapter of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement, "Mississippians will be put at risk as a result of this bill that will allow certain violent criminals and those with dangerous mental illness to carry concealed handguns without a permit. Mississippi legislators should have listened to the 83 percent of Mississippians—and 89 percent of Mississippi gun owners—who agree that anyone who carries a hidden, loaded handgun in public should have a permit."
Local Second Amendment groups, such as Mississippi Gun Rights, praised the new law.
"Constitutional carry is the basic principle that if you are legally eligible to possess a firearm, you should be able to carry that weapon, concealed, for self-defense without government permission," said Robert Roland, the group’s senior state director.
According to Roland, the "vast majority" of Mississippians support the bill, including Mississippi Gun Rights’ 40,000 members and supporters.
"Law-abiding people shouldn’t be forced to get a government permit before they can exercise their right to self-defense. House Bill 786 removes the penalty for carrying a concealed handgun without a permit," Roland said, "It does away with the tax or ‘fee’ required for law-abiding gun owners to exercise their God-given right to self-defense."
Roland explained that since July 1, 2013, open carry was legal without a permit in the state. But the act of concealing a firearm from view required a permit.
"In essence, you must pay a tax to wear a coat while carrying your weapon," Roland said. "Permits and their associated fees are a coat tax. Under HB 786, permits will be optional for law-abiding gun owners who still wish to obtain them for reciprocity reasons."
NRA-backed legislation expanding permitless carry has gained momentum in recent years. Mississippi became the third state this year to expand permitless carry. Idaho’s governor signed permitless carry legislation late last month, and West Virginia’s governor signed permitless carry legislation earlier this year.