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Mormon leaders explicitly ban guns from houses of worship

A longtime rural Nevada volunteer firefighter was fatally shot during Sunday services last year at this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fallon, Nev., about 60 miles east of Reno. (Scott Sonner/AP)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has placed an explicit ban on bringing guns to church by adjusting a policy to say firearms are prohibited for anyone except police officers, according to Daniel Woodruff, a spokesman for the church.

Woodruff confirmed the change to a church policy handbook, which previously stated that it was “inappropriate” to have firearms in meetinghouses.

While the new policy on firearms applies to the entire church, a letter about the change was recently sent to local leaders in Texas and shared with members, Woodruff said. The letter was sent because of a change in state law there that will permit the carrying of open and concealed weapons in places of worship unless a person is notified that it is prohibited.

Texas bishops were asked to share the church’s adjusted policy publicly with 362,946 Mormon members in the state before Sept. 1, Woodruff said.

“The decision has been made not to place written signs on our buildings, but rather, prior to September 1, 2019 we are asking all bishops in Texas to read the following statement in the sacrament meetings of all units to give effective oral notice to members of the Church and visitors that weapons are not permitted,” a letter from the church to its leaders states.

Woodruff said the policy will be formally communicated to local church leaders “in the near future.” Those leaders will be responsible for sharing the guidelines with the 6.7 million members across the United States. The church’s policy tweak comes about one year after a volunteer firefighter was fatally shot inside one of its churches in rural Nevada.

“Churches are dedicated for the worship of God and as havens from the cares and concerns of the world,” the updated policy reads. “With the exception of current law enforcement officers, the carrying of lethal weapons on Church property, concealed or otherwise, is prohibited.”

Texas’s law comes two years after a mass shooting took place at a Southern Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, where a bystander engaged the gunman with an AR-15. Twenty-six people were killed in the deadliest mass shooting at a house of worship in recent history.

The LDS Church first took a policy position on this in 2004, in response to a law in Utah, the state where the church is headquartered. Churches there can prohibit guns, but they must notify the public of their intent to restrict firearms, and the LDS Church has done so through Utah’s Department of Public Safety, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The church has not taken specific positions on gun control, but LDS Church President Russell Nelson, who was once a heart surgeon, has criticized U.S. laws on the issue.

Mormons mirror the population on background checks but are more conservative when it comes to assault weapon bans and concealed-carry permits, according to Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University.

Many conservative gun rights activists in the church saw themselves as not subject to the church’s earlier guidance, so the church had to develop stronger language, according to Taylor Petrey, chair of the religion department at Kalamazoo College and an expert on Mormonism.

“The reason for the stronger policy is conservative gun activists who flouted the previous warnings not to bring guns into church,” he said.

Upon settling in Utah, Mormons became immersed in the culture of the American West, which included guns and hunting, according to Matthew Bowman, a historian and author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” Spencer Kimball, church president in the 1970s and 1980s, discouraged hunting, but generally hunting was popular among western American Mormons as it has been among other western Americans.

“Indeed, in the 1990s a small Utah town passed an ordinance requiring all citizens to own a gun,” Bowman wrote in an email. “But as the church has changed — as the Mormon diaspora has spread Mormons around the country and as more and more church members live outside the United States — those sentiments have changed as well.”

LDS Church leaders teach continuing revelation, meaning that its prophets interpret the scriptures for changing times. Earlier this month, the LDS Church clarified that vaping, green tea and drinks ending in “-ccino” are off limits under the religion’s dietary code.