Houston Chronicle Sunday

Guns in places of wor­ship a new re­al­ity

Texas churches seek train­ing, vol­un­teer se­cu­rity af­ter at­tacks

- By An­drea Zelin­ski, Al­lie Mor­ris and Dy­lan McGuin­ness Crime · Religion · Christianity · Austin, TX · United Methodist Church · Richmond · Republican Party (United States) · Texas · Greg Abbott · South Carolina · Charleston, SC · Pittsburgh · Pennsylvania · New York · Fort Knox · Christ Church · Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) · Galveston, TX · organization · James Meeks · Methodism · Fort Bend County · Bend · University of North Texas · Churches of Christ · White Settlement, TX · Wilson · Fort Worth · Sutherland Springs, TX · Pittsburgh · Harlem · Harris County

AUSTIN — Fort Bend County Sher­iff Troy Nehls wears his uni­form to church ev­ery Sun­day and greets peo­ple at the front door. Mem­bers of his church’s se­cu­rity team sit in the pews in plain­clothes, car­ry­ing firearms, tiny mi­cro­phone ra­dios in their ears.

Parish­ioners “feel bet­ter know­ing, God­for­bid some knucklehea­d comes in and wants to hurt the flock, we are there,” said Nehls, who at­tends ser­vices at Faith United Methodist Church in Rich­mond and is now run­ning as a Repub­li­can can­di­date for Congress.

Guns in Texas churches have be­come a new re­al­ity af­ter a rash of deadly shoot­ings in the state and na­tion­wide has height­ened ten­sions for re­li­gious lead­ers and con­gre­gants. Aided by changes to state law that have made it eas­ier for peo­ple to carry loaded firearms into churches and for houses of wor­ship to as­sem­ble se­cu­rity teams, at least 100 church

lead­ers have or­ga­nized groups of armed vol­un­teers to pa­trol the pews. Hun­dreds of oth­ers have sent vol­un­teers to in­for­ma­tional se­cu­rity classes.

No one or­ga­ni­za­tion tracks how many churches have dep­u­tized parish­ioners or hired pri­vate se­cu­rity, but se­cu­rity pro­fes­sion­als say there’s been a high de­mand for their ser­vices in re­cent years.

The de­ci­sion to arm vol­un­teers likely saved many lives at church in North Texas last week­end. A drifter with a his­tory of drug abuse and men­tal ill­ness opened fire in­side West Free­way Church of Christ in the sub­urb of White Set­tle­ment, killing two parish­ioners be­fore Jack Wil­son, a sea­soned marks­man who leads the vol­un­teer se­cu­rity team, fa­tally shot him within six sec­onds.

Ad­vo­cates for bet­ter church se­cu­rity, in­clud­ing Repub­li­can Gov. Greg Ab­bott, point to what hap­pened as proof that se­cu­rity teams can curb vi­o­lence in places of wor­ship. Ab­bott, who tweeted a pic­ture Fri­day of him­self with Wil­son, lauded him as a hero and an ex­am­ple of a “good guy with a gun who stopped a bad guy with a gun.”

Sup­port­ers of what they call sen­si­ble gun leg­is­la­tion warn that arm­ing ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially those with­out proper train­ing, could cre­ate new dan­gers. They note that two peo­ple were fa­tally shot at the sub­ur­ban Fort Worth church be­fore the gun­man was stopped.

“Why did it even get to that point?” said Gyl Switzer, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Texas Gun Sense. “If we had a way of re­duc­ing easy ac­cess to firearms by peo­ple who clearly should not have them, then we wouldn’t be hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion at all.”

‘Be­com­ing Fort Knox’

Churches, long viewed as a haven for peo­ple seek­ing to get closer to God or be part of a re­li­gious com­mu­nity, have found them­selves the scene of mul­ti­ple deadly shoot­ings in re­cent years:

• Nine peo­ple were fa­tally shot dur­ing Bible study at a his­tor­i­cally black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 by a 21-year-old white su­prem­a­cist. He was con­victed in 2016 of mur­der and hate crimes and sen­tenced to death.

• Twenty-six peo­ple were killed at Suther­land Springs Bap­tist Church in 2017 in the dead­li­est mass shoot­ing in Texas his­tory. A lo­cal res­i­dent and for­mer firearms in­struc­tor con­fronted and ex­changed gun­fire with the shooter, strik­ing him twice. Af­ter a chase, the gun­man was found dead in­side his car; he had shot him­self.

• Eleven peo­ple were killed and six oth­ers wounded by a man shout­ing anti-Semitic slurs at a syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh, Pa. He ex­changed gun­fire with of­fi­cers who met him at the door as he tried to leave and later sur­ren­dered.

• A few days be­fore the start of 2020, a man bran­dish­ing a large knife stabbed and wounded five peo­ple at the home of a Ha­sidic rabbi in a sub­urb of New York as they gath­ered to light can­dles for Hanukkah. The sus­pect was ar­rested in Har­lem.

In Hous­ton, pas­tors are strug­gling to de­ter­mine the best way to deal with po­ten­tial threats while not fright­en­ing parish­ioners or alien­at­ing new­com­ers. The shooter in White Set­tle­ment, lo­cated just west of Fort Worth, had been to the church pre­vi­ously and been given food, ac­cord­ing to the pas­tor there. He re­port­edly grew an­gry when the church re­fused to give him money.

“The ten­sion is real. (But) to try to al­le­vi­ate the ten­sion by be­com­ing Fort Knox, means that we cease to be dis­ci­ples of Je­sus,” said Rev. Barkley S. Thomp­son, dean of the Epis­co­pal con­gre­ga­tion at Christ Church Cathe­dral in down­town Hous­ton, re­fer­ring to the for­ti­fied vault build­ing that’s home to the bulk of the na­tion’s gold re­serves.

Christ Church, the old­est house of wor­ship in Hous­ton, is used to wel­com­ing folks who may be men­tally ill, home­less or just out of jail, he said.

“It may be that we’re more ac­cli­mated to strangers in our midst. That doesn’t mean that parish­ioners are im­mune to those con­cerns,” Thomp­son said. “We keep our eyes open for aber­rant be­hav­ior and seek to iden­tify that and make our off-duty of­fi­cers aware. That’s part of be­ing pru­dent. Wel­com­ing the stranger does not mean ig­nor­ing aber­rant be­hav­ior.”

Thomp­son, a gun owner him­self, said Christ Church doesn’t al­low parish­ioners to bring their weapons to ser­vices or take their bags in­side the place of wor­ship. The church hires off-duty law en­force­ment of­fi­cers for se­cu­rity on Sun­days.

Jef­frey Eernisse, pas­tor of a small con­gre­ga­tion at Sec­ond Chris­tian Church in north Hous­ton, said parish­ioners are more prac­ti­cally con­cerned about a vagabond de­fac­ing their bath­room than a gun­man wreak­ing havoc on the con­gre­ga­tion.

“You’re not re­ally very likely to be a vic­tim of gun vi­o­lence, even in such a gun-happy place,” he said.

In the wake of Suther­land Springs, Texas law­mak­ers passed a law al­low­ing any­one with a con­cealed-carry li­cense to bring a weapon into a house of wor­ship un­less there was a sign there specif­i­cally ban­ning guns.

Eernisse wants to avoid stok­ing fear. He hasn’t banned guns from his church, as the law would al­low him to do, but nei­ther has he des­ig­nated se­cu­rity per­son­nel. None of his roughly 60 parish­ioners has ap­proached him about do­ing so ei­ther.

“We are a very small con­gre­ga­tion. We don’t have a lot of man­power to de­vote to such things,” he said. “I don’t want to be a con­gre­ga­tion where we live by the gun.”

Train­ing

Still, many pas­tors across the state have be­gun train­ing parish­ioners in ev­ery­thing from emer­gency exit plans to ac­tive shooter sim­u­la­tions.

Each place of wor­ship should pre­pare for a pos­si­ble shoot­ing, just as it would a fire, said Har­ris County Con­sta­ble Alan Rosen, who rep­re­sents Precinct 1. Af­ter the Suther­land Springs mas­sacre, Rosen be­gan of­fer­ing safety train­ing for re­li­gious lead­ers. Mem­bers of some 300 churches, syn­a­gogues and mosques have taken ad­van­tage of the train­ing, trav­el­ing from as far as Galve­ston and Mont­gomery coun­ties.

“Frankly I’m tired of th­ese shoot­ings all over the place. It both­ers me im­mensely,” said Rosen. “You can’t pray in a church now with­out look­ing over your shoul­der to see who’s be­hind you.”

Many churches can­not af­ford to hire po­lice of­fi­cers or pri­vate se­cu­rity guards dur­ing their ser­vices, he said. In­stead, churches that want to cre­ate their own se­cu­rity team should vet those vol­un­teers and en­sure the con­gre­ga­tion knows what to do in the event of a shoot­ing.

“You can’t willy-nilly just put to­gether peo­ple stand­ing around with guns and ex­pect good things to hap­pen,” he said.

In Rosen’s class, for ex­am­ple, pas­tors learn how to iden­tify and seg­re­gate new­com­ers to keep a closer eye on them. The con­sta­ble’s staff, upon re­quest, has made church vis­its to as­sess vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in their build­ings and con­duct role-play sce­nar­ios where a fake shooter fires blanks in the church.

Train­ing from pri­vate com­pa­nies is more in­tense. Gate­keep­ers Se­cu­rity in North Texas likens its pro­gram to po­lice train­ing, with parish­ioners who vol­un­teer for a safety team un­der­go­ing firearms train­ing, hand-to-hand com­bat, prac­tice with a laser sim­u­la­tor, a back­ground check and psy­cho­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion.

In the days since the shoot­ing, calls from re­li­gious lead­ers have poured in to the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Church Se­cu­rity and Safety Man­age­ment, said Chuck Chad­wick, the group’s founder and pres­i­dent of Gate­keep­ers Se­cu­rity. He calls the in­ter­est “emo­tional in­er­tia” that builds af­ter a shoot­ing at a place of wor­ship, but wanes as the tragedy fades from pub­lic con­scious­ness.

In­spired to work church se­cu­rity af­ter the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, he said his or­ga­ni­za­tions have trained about 500 vol­un­teers in Texas to re­turn home to safe­guard their re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions, about 100 in to­tal. When a vol­un­teer is cer­ti­fied by the group, that per­son pro­vides se­cu­rity and the church pays the or­ga­ni­za­tion a $11.20 hourly fee to ab­sorb all li­a­bil­ity for the ac­tions of the trainee, Chad­wick said.

About a quar­ter of his clients have gone fur­ther, es­tab­lish­ing se­cu­rity rooms with an elec­tronic vault stor­ing firearms and tac­ti­cal vests, he said.

“No­body would have thought we’d be do­ing this 20 years ago,” Chad­wick said.

In the 14 years he has trained vol­un­teers, none has en­coun­tered a deadly-force in­ci­dent, he said. Most times, they deal with crim­i­nal tres­pass­ing, do­mes­tic dis­putes and rob­beries.

Re­tired po­lice of­fi­cer and pas­tor James Meeks, who now runs Sheep­dog Sem­i­nars at churches across the coun­try, said the best skill is know­ing how to talk to peo­ple in cri­sis. There are dis­tur­bances ev­ery Sun­day at churches across the coun­try that don’t call for an armed re­sponse, he said.

“You bet­ter know how to talk peo­ple down. If you can­not, at least know how to try,” he said. “You are go­ing to use your mouth way more than your gun.”

Those who are join­ing church se­cu­rity teams need to be trained, he said.

“You have to be do­ing some­thing, you can’t drop into a (fir­ing) range and shoot tar­gets that don’t move and think you’re ready” for an ac­tive-shooter sit­u­a­tion, Meeks said.

That was the sit­u­a­tion that con­fronted se­cu­rity vol­un­teers at White Free­way

Church of Christ on Dec. 29, the Sun­day ser­vice be­tween Christ­mas and New Year’s Day.

A man wear­ing a fake beard, wig, hat and a long coat en­tered the cream-col­ored brick church and sat in a pew. Just be­fore com­mu­nion, he pulled out a shot­gun and opened fire. He killed two men, An­ton Wal­lace, a 64-year-old dea­con and grand­fa­ther who was serv­ing com­mu­nion, and se­cu­rity vol­un­teer Richard White, 67, who was also a fa­ther and grand­fa­ther. Within six sec­onds, se­cu­rity vol­un­teer Jack Wil­son shot and killed the shooter, Keith Kin­nunen, 43.

Wil­son was not an or­di­nary parish­ioner with a gun. He leads the church’s vol­un­teer se­cu­rity team and has taught firearm safety, in­clud­ing to mem­bers of the se­cu­rity team. A for­mer Hood County re­serve deputy, he has also owned a fir­ing range. Se­cu­rity videos show he wasn’t alone bran­dish­ing a firearm; sev­eral other peo­ple were stand­ing in the pews, gun in hand.

In other cases, those on pa­trol never need to fire, but the pos­si­bil­ity they may need to one day is still there.

A San An­to­nio pas­tor, who asked to re­main anony­mous for fear of mak­ing his church a tar­get, said he be­gan car­ry­ing a con­cealed gun four years ago. He once pulled it on a stranger who came into the church with a pack­age that he said was a bomb. The pas­tor pro­vided video of the in­ci­dent, in which he can be seen aim­ing a hand­gun while ask­ing the man to leave, which he did.

“When you are in trou­ble, who do you call? Some­body with a gun, you call the po­lice,” he said. “We arm our­selves for that very rea­son. By the time po­lice get there, the dam­age is done.”

 ?? West Free­way Church of Christ/Cour­tesy of Law En­force­ment / As­so­ci­ated Press ?? In a frame grab from livestream­ed video from West Free­way Church of Christ, an armed se­cu­rity vol­un­teer, top left, en­gages a man who had opened fire, near top cen­ter, last Sun­day in White Set­tle­ment.
West Free­way Church of Christ/Cour­tesy of Law En­force­ment / As­so­ci­ated Press In a frame grab from livestream­ed video from West Free­way Church of Christ, an armed se­cu­rity vol­un­teer, top left, en­gages a man who had opened fire, near top cen­ter, last Sun­day in White Set­tle­ment.
 ?? Steve Gon­za­les / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher ?? Fort Bend County Sher­iff Troy E. Nehls, left, wears his uni­form to ser­vices and leads a se­cu­rity team at Faith United Methodist Church in Rich­mond.
Steve Gon­za­les / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher Fort Bend County Sher­iff Troy E. Nehls, left, wears his uni­form to ser­vices and leads a se­cu­rity team at Faith United Methodist Church in Rich­mond.

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