WILLISTON, N.D. — A group of pastors in Williston, a town that has attracted thousands of new residents looking for work but sometimes finding trouble, say a petition to allow guns in their churches is motivated by mass shootings elsewhere and not North Dakota’s oil boom.
The petition asking city commissioners to give churches the option of allowing concealed weapons will be submitted at a meeting Tuesday.
The Rev. Will Page, associate pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church, said he worries that people with evil intentions may target churches because they know members of the congregation are not armed.
“The whole idea of a gun-free zone is inherently dangerous,” said Page, who moved to Williston from Mobile, Ala., in August.
Williston churches may not end up allowing guns, but several pastors who have signed a petition want that decision to be left up to church leadership, not the government, said the Rev. Mark Britton of Faith United Methodist Church.
“Sometimes pastors have to stand up for church rights,” Britton said.
Applications for new concealed weapons permits and renewals are steadily increasing in the Williston area and around North Dakota. Williams County had 923 concealed weapons licenses and renewals in 2012, a 101 percent increase over 2011, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The entire state saw about a 124 percent increase in licenses issued in 2012.
State legislators also are debating the issue of concealed weapons in churches. House Bill 1283 would allow concealed weapons holders to carry a weapon in the church building with authorization from the church and notification of law enforcement.
Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, former Williams County sheriff who served 40 years in law enforcement, said he has a difficult time accepting that allowing concealed weapons in church or other places improves safety.
“When you get into a situation where a gun is being used, people are scared. They’re so afraid that you don’t hardly remember what took place when the thing is over,” Lyson said. “In doing that, are they going to be efficient with their gun at that point? Or are they going to spray the bullets and maybe hit innocent people?”
Lyson, who retired from law enforcement in 1999, no longer carries a weapon.
Williston Police Chief James Lokken said he doesn’t plan to take a stance on the city’s proposal or state legislation and will support whatever the policymakers decide.
In general, Lokken said he is not in favor of guns in public gathering places.
“Emotions get high and who knows what could happen?” Lokken said. “I like the law the way it is.”
Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching also said he’s not getting involved with local or state policy discussions. But he said he does have concerns about gun-free zones.
“Aren’t you putting up a target?” Busching said.
Williams County already has received about 350 applications for concealed weapon permits this year, Busching said. Officials say they believe the increase has more to do with discussions in Washington, D.C., about guns than concerns about safety in North Dakota.
“We don’t see any crimes from people who have concealed weapon permits,” Busching said. “I have nothing to fear from the law-abiding armed citizen.”
The suspect in last weekend’s fatal shooting outside a Williston strip club is not believed to be a concealed weapon permit holder, Lokken said.
Busching cited Chicago as an example of a city with strict gun laws that has a lot of home invasions.
“If you crawl through a window here, it’s pretty likely you’re going to get shot,” Busching said. “That’s a deterrent.”
Britton, an Air Force veteran and former security policeman, said his church is likely at a greater risk than others in Williston because it’s downtown and closest to the Amtrak station, bus stop and bars. But he doesn’t think his congregation would ever need to worry about taking precautions such as arming ushers.
“I doubt that anything like what happened in Sandy Hook will ever happen here, but you certainly can’t rule it out, either,” said Britton, who served in Hitchcock, S.D., before moving to Williston nine months ago.
Page said Cornerstone Baptist Church has not had any incidents that are prompting support for this petition, and the church leadership is not in favor of arming ushers.
“We’re not advocating that anybody do this, just that the city council grant local congregations the option of making the decision for themselves,” Page said.
Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said he anticipates that commissioners will not take action Tuesday, but will likely refer the matter to a committee or monitor the bill being discussed in the Legislature.
“My sense is that they’re going to want to have some more discussion about it,” Koeser said.