In response to Sunday's deadly shooting
in Sutherland Springs, Texas, population 400, part of the national conversation has turned to church security. How can churches protect themselves from active shooters? Should parishioners be allowed to carry in church?
Church shootings are, sadly, not without precedent. In 1999 a man shot 14 people, killing seven, at a youth prayer rally at Wedgewood Baptist Church
in Ft. Worth, before killing himself; in 2005 a man shot and killed four people at the Sash Assembly of God Church
in Fannin, Texas. And just six weeks ago a gunman shot eight people, killing one, at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ
in Tennessee. More notoriously, in June 2015 Dylann Roof killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church
in Charleston, South Carolina.
Even before Sunday's shooting, the Trump administration was working on efforts to train houses of worship on emergency security preparedness, including active shooter situations, Elizabeth Dias reports
. Jamie Johnson, the director of the Department of Homeland Security
's Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships office, told Time, "We are going to be a whole lot busier in the months and years to come when it comes to safety and security for houses of worship . . . This issue will now come to the forefront of the religious conversation in America." (Johnson, previously a conservative talk show host, was appointed to the post by then-homeland security secretary John Kelly, now White House chief of staff.) Johnson has spoken at church conferences nationwide, and told Time in August, "We teach pastors and church executives to teach their members to be aware that not everyone who steps onto a church property has worship on their mind."
Anthony Williams, the police commander for the Dallas County Community College District
, holds security seminars for churches in northern Texas. "He teaches de-escalation — knowing when it is best to run and hide, and when it is time to fight and defend. It all starts with preparedness," Jennifer Lindgren reports
in Fort Worth. "Williams looks at what churches can do — from the parking lot to the pulpit — to help keep the faith, but understand that these shootings are a real threat." Williams told her, "What we try to do is, we try to prepare our churches to find that balance between faith, as well as reality."
Some churches are taking such warnings to heart. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas,
who preached at President Trump's private inaugural church service, told Dias that his church worked with DHS to complete a safety assessment months ago. The 13,000-member church has paid uniformed and plainclothes security officers at every service, and parishioners are not allowed to carry backpacks. But they are allowed to carry guns. "It would be unthinkable in a state like Texas not to allow it," Jeffress told Dias. “We think that is safer."
Larry Rowell, a Baptist minister who recently retired as editor of Kentucky's Casey County News
, asked his Facebook friends, "Should church attendees who are duly licensed to carry a concealed weapon bring it into a worship service?" Here are selected responses, in order of posting:
"My heart says no, my mind says yes."
"There are local churches that have selected members to carry."
"I used to not think yes, but times have changed . . . " (some other responses were similar)
"If he's in his right mind and can legally do so and has the preachers permission, then yes."
"I know of some churches who have at least four people who carry in the church . . ."
"We have a large church and many concealed carry members in church."
"Our church has two concealed-carry members who patrol our campus."
"Yep. But I'm not for churches 'authorizing' their concealed carrying members to be armed security. If a church 'sanctions' it, they are legally responsible for the actions of those they 'authorized'."
"I don't think they should because that is God's house."
"No. Google accidental discharge of weapon in church. And then look at the number of toddlers who shoot people to death, because they found a gun in a purse or a jacket."
"Yes. Even small churches need to have these conversations."
In response to a question, Rowell wrote that he is licensed to carry concealed, and does, but "My fear is with five or more pistol packing parishioners in a small church such as the one I lead, if a shooter enters and we have parishioners shooting at him from both sides of the church, innocent parishioners can get hit. It’s a thorny situation. There are also legal implications."