Light Rain73° WeatherLight Rain73° Weather

Some see guns in church as necessary evil

An off-duty Tampa police officer stands guard near the pulpit at Without Walls International Church. Armed officers work services there and help to secure offerings after collection.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

An off-duty Tampa police officer stands guard near the pulpit at Without Walls International Church. Armed officers work services there and help to secure offerings after collection.

TAMPA — Beneath the dim glow of purple stage lights in the church's sanctuary, the choir sways and claps.

"God gave me authority to conquer the enemy! He wrote it in my destiny, and my name is victory!"

Just beyond them in the shadows of the pulpit, near an area set aside for former senior pastor Randy White and other ministers, an armed and uniformed Tampa Police Department officer scans the few hundred worshipers at Without Walls International Church. A 9mm Glock fills the holster on his belt.

When it's offering time, the officer escorts ushers from the altar to an undisclosed area. A few minutes later, he returns to his post, standing for the duration of the two-hour service.

It has long been common for churches to employ off-duty police officers to help with parking lot security and direct traffic. But shootings inside churches around the country in recent years has opened a debate to this question: Should lethal force be invited inside for protection?

Opinions often stem from the Bible. Those against guns say if a minister is killed while serving his flock, it is God's will.

Those in favor cite scriptures like Matthew 10:16: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."

Janet Corbitt, 40, a member at Without Walls, says guns in churches is an unfortunate reality to maintain safety on sacred ground.

"It doesn't make me uncomfortable, because people are crazy," she said. "They have all types of security at banks and libraries. They shouldn't have to at church, but they do."

• • •

Vaughn Baker is a former police officer and Army reservist who runs Strategos International, a Grandview, Mo., company that provides security training for law enforcement officials and church security teams.

When the company began consulting churches last year, it had about 50 clients. Now it claims 150.

Baker tells church leaders to look for suspicious activity, like someone walking toward the altar at an awkward moment, or someone wearing a heavy coat in hot weather.

"We start off our courses telling them that we hope everything we teach you is something you'll never get to use," said Baker, who also runs the security team at his church in Lee's Summit, Mo.

Church shootings are extremely rare, but because they do happen, Baker preaches preparedness. There are 375,000 churches in the United States, according to www.churchsecuritymember.com. There were 18 church shootings in 2008, according to the Web site, which tracks church-related shootings and provides information on how to start a church security team. In 2007, the Web site says, there were six shootings.

Why would anyone choose a church to wreak havoc?

"Churches are targets because they are in a confined area, and the shooter has a large group of people who are immobilized in a sitting position," Baker said. "And if the preacher is targeted, the person has already made it to the altar."

Another reason is guaranteed media coverage, Baker says, because church shootings are uncommon. Baker cited recent church shootings in Knoxville, Tenn. and Maryville, Ill., as examples.

"You get somebody on the brink who is intent on committing suicide anyway and has never gotten attention," Baker said. "That gives them something to be remembered for."

At Northland Church in Longwood, about 20 minutes north of Orlando, James Li carries a concealed weapon to church services as director of security.

The seven-member security team at Northland is comprised of current law enforcement personnel and reserves, Li said, to ensure safety for the 160,000-square-foot church.

The church formed the security team a few years ago when it moved from a building with a sanctuary that held 1,000 people to one that holds 3,100 in the main sanctuary alone. The balcony can hold an additional 1,000 people.

The church's board of elders and pastors anticipated the additional traffic and people in the new building and wanted to find ways to ensure safety of its members, Li said.

Li, a former consultant in the executive protection industry who now runs a martial arts school, said armed security is provided in most other public places, so adding churches to that list is expected.

"People go to a baseball game and see it," Li said. "What's the difference between thousands of people there and at a church?"

• • •

While some churches have armed members of their security teams, the very thought of that makes Monsignor Desmond Daly of Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa uncomfortable.

Daly says equipping his elderly ushers with guns to guard the congregation of 9,000 would result in more harm than good.

"There'd be far more damage to the congregation than one lone gunman," Daly said, adding that the thinks having guns in church is a knee-jerk reaction to isolated incidents of shootings. "It's a bad idea. I can't imagine that it would do us any good at all to have people on hand with firearms, should somebody come into a crowded congregation."

At Calvary Assembly Church in Orlando, which has a congregation of 1,500, the security team of five people includes two who have permits to carry guns, said Bill Andersen, security director. Andersen, a retired law enforcement officer, is one of them. He doesn't carry a gun to church.

Yet.

"Eventually," Andersen said, adding that he plans to approach the church board on the issue, "we'll probably go to that."

No one carries guns at First Baptist Church of College Hill in Tampa, but assistant pastor Chris Jarnegan says his 15-person security team has had to help escort drunk or rowdy people outside.

He doesn't think his congregation of about 800 needs a security staff that carries firearms, but understands why some churches do.

"With the situation with our economy, people are getting desperate," he said. "You never know what could happen."

• • •

At Without Walls, Tampa officers have been positioned inside the church for the past three years, said Gregory Gibson, co-director of the 20-member security team.

Before then, officers were called in for security and parking only during special services on New Year's Eve or Easter, Gibson said.

Now, one officer stands inside the church's 9 a.m. service, and one at the 11 a.m. service on Sundays . One officer is also positioned inside the church during a service at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

The decision to place officers inside the church was "just a precaution," Gibson said.

"Our methodology is enlightened based on what's happened at other churches," Gibson said. "Our focus is to be prepared for what happens in every situation, with the pastor and the congregation's safety being first."

Members like Charles Harrison, 38, of Tampa, and his fiancee, Lydia Jackson, 39, say they never thought twice about seeing an officer inside the church carrying a gun when they started attending Without Walls last year.

"It's sad that it came to that," Harrison said, "but it's better to have that than not to have it."

On a recent Sunday morning at Without Walls, Chico Dials, a charismatic young minister, spoke at the 11 a.m. service.

The armed officer in the sanctuary didn't escape his attention.

"People ask why," Dials joked, "and it's because when they want to shoot, the bullets come up this way."

Some in the sanctuary chuckled. Others glanced at the officer. He stood stiffly, watching.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Camille C. Spencer can be reached at cspencer@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

Recent church shootings


Dec. 9, 2007: A 24-year-old gunman opened fire at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. Two people were killed, and four were wounded. An armed church security volunteer wounded the gunman before he turned the gun on himself.


July 27, 2008: A 58-year-old man killed two people at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., and wounded seven others after pulling a shotgun from a guitar case while children from the church sang. The man was held by church members until police arrived.


Nov. 23: A 27-year-old man killed his estranged wife and wounded two people at St. Thomas Syrian Orthodox Knanaya Church in Clifton, N.J. The gunman ran from the church and fled in a car. He was arrested the next day in Monroe, Ga.


March 8: A 27-year-old man walked down a church aisle, briefly spoke to the pastor of First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., and shot him. The pastor used a Bible to shield himself from the bullets, but died at a hospital. After his pistol jammed, the gunman began to stab himself. He wounded two parishioners with a knife when they tried to subdue him, and was arrested.


May 31: A 51-year-old man shot and killed well-known abortion doctor George Tiller while Tiller served as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan. After shooting Tiller in the foyer, the man fled to Gardner, about 170 miles northeast of Wichita, where he was arrested.

Some see guns in church as necessary evil 07/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 12:26pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...