JACKSON, Miss. – Asked to choose between a Christian spirit of peace and a "God-given right" of self-defense, Mississippi senators Tuesday overwhelmingly favored the latter.
The state Senate passed voted 36-14 in passing House Bill 786 (http://bit.ly/1ZIUFLb ), known as the Mississippi Church Protection Act. The senators sent it back to House counterparts for further work.
Under the bill, places of worship could designate members to undergo firearms training and carry guns to protect the congregation.
Notably, it also goes beyond church security and would allow people to carry guns in holsters without a state concealed weapons permit, a feature that drew opponents' criticism. That would expand on last year's state law allowing people to carry guns in purses or briefcases without a permit.
The measure also asserts that no state official can enforce any federal executive order or administrative rule that violates the constitutions of Mississippi or the nation, challenging the principle that federal law overrides state law.
Debate over the bill elicited clashing interpretations of Christian scripture, and questions of what Jesus would do.
Soft-spoken Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat from the capital city of Jackson, spoke while brandishing a sheathed sword before the chamber. He cited the story of Jesus healing the high priest's servant after a disciple cut off the servant's ear as Jesus was being arrested.
"We don't need to pimp the church for political purposes," Frazier said. "If you want to pass a bill liberalizing gun laws, then do that. Don't use the church."
Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Sean Tindell, a Republican from Gulfport, said congregations need legal protection after last summer's mass shooting that claimed nine lives at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The bill would shield church members who are officially designated from civil or criminal liability if they shoot someone committing a violent crime. The members would be required to have enhanced concealed carry training or a police or military background.
"The self-defense of these churches is a God-given right," Tindell said.
The section of the bill to lower requirements for concealed-carry permits drew opposition from the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police. Executive Director Ken Winter said that provision would make it harder to stop people who appear to be engaged in wrongdoing. He also said the bill could raise the "threat level" to officers.
"We just don't believe that it's a good idea for people to be carrying concealed weapons and not have participated in any training," Winter said.
The National Rifle Association lauded that proposal, noting Mississippi could become the ninth state to allow people to carry concealed guns without any permit or fees.
"This important piece of pro-gun legislation clarifies existing law in Mississippi and ensures that each Mississippian has the right to carry their firearm in the manner that best suits them," said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's lobbying arm.
Debate also erupted over whether federal regulations could override Mississippi's constitution.
To scattered applause from fellow senators, Tindell told a Democratic counterpart, Hob Bryan of Amory, that he believed the Mississippi Constitution couldn't be trumped without a law passed by Congress.
"You may have been wrong before but you have never been more wrong than you are now," Bryan replied.
Federal courts have ruled that rules enacted by agencies, even if not laws passed by Congress, override state law.
Online: House Bill 2161: http://bit.ly/1RxqDdc
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