DARKE COUNTY — Nearly two weeks have passed since a deranged man with a rifle entered a Texas church and opened fire on the congregation.
Within a matter of minutes, 26 people were dead and 20 others wounded. The killer was chased down by two civilians, one of whom was armed and shot the suspect, and the perpetrator committed suicide soon after. The shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs will be remembered as one of the worst mass killings in American history.
The event has had repercussions, not only in regards to questions about mental health and gun policy, but also as it pertains to the safety of churchgoers. One question some are asking is, “Should I bring a gun to church?”
The Buckeye State has prohibitions on taking guns to church. Even those with a concealed carry license cannot necessarily enter a church armed. Ohio Revised Code says a valid license does not authorize the licensee to carry a concealed handgun into “Any church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship, unless the church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship posts or permits otherwise.”
Ohio is one of 10 states with legislation on the books pertaining to guns in churches. Nebraska allows a place of worship to authorize “security personnel” as long as each member possesses a permit to carry a concealed handgun, written notice is given to the congregation and, if the property is leased, it does not violate the terms of any lease agreement. Louisiana has a similar law.
Most states, however, even ones with more restrictive gun regulations, like California and Massachusetts, treat churches like any other private property, where firearms are allowed or prohibited on a church-by-church basis.
The Daily Advocate reached out to a number of local church leaders to get their thoughts on church safety and firearms in places of worship. Of those leaders who responded, they say the tragedy in Texas has brought the question of safety to the forefront.
Father John White, of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, says times have changed, with churches becoming more cognizant of the safety of their parishioners.
“Twenty five years ago, people had easy access to churches and schools, you could walk right in,” he said, noting that St. Mary’s operates both a church and a school. “Now, there seems to be a greater sense of freedom in our country to disrupt churches, and it’s had an effect on people who aren’t psychologically stable. We’ve always had a concern for safety, but never like things are now.”
“Church has always been seen as a place where people go to seek peace, to seek spiritual sanctuary,” he added.
Among the precautions put into effect at St. Mary’s church and school are locked doors and security cameras. Guns, however, are banned in both buildings, which bear signs prohibiting firearms on their premises.
Pastor John Sgrow, of Oakland Church of the Brethren in Bradford, says his denomination does not advocate weapons in church.
“The Church of the Brethren has a heritage of being one of the ‘peace churches,’” he said. “However, there’s no stated ban.”
“That doesn’t mean we don’t have members carrying weapons,” he added. “If we do have members who carry, they don’t share.”
The church does keep watch during services, including ushers who walk the grounds, checking in on children and visitors. As part of the church’s “Safe Church Policy,” those in position of authority undergo background checks.
“Honestly, we are living in a surreal moment,” Sgrow said. “This has become a topic of conversation in our world today. There may be some maneuvering as far as how we see our ushers keeping an eye on things. I don’t see a change in overall policy, but it’s definitely furthering the discussion.”
One local church incorporated a number of security measures long before the incident in Sutherland Springs.
Pastor Jeffrey Harper said his pastorate, Greenville EUM, has a few select, armed individuals charged with security at his church which sees an average attendance of 1,200 to 1,300 worshipers each Sunday.
“They are all trained,” he said. “They’re either police officers, sheriff’s deputies, military — they have certification outside of the concealed carry. They’re allowed to carry weapons even in restricted areas. They watch the doors and hallways. Probably most people wouldn’t know, we don’t identify them. They’re very diligent at what they do.”
Beyond this level of security, Harper says the church utilizes other precautions, including locked doors for children’s rooms and name tags for youngsters.
Jim Irvine, board president of the Buckeye Firearms Association, an advocacy group in favor of fewer government restrictions on gun ownership, calls organizations such as churches which completely ban firearms on their grounds “the definition of insanity.”
“We keep saying ‘We don’t want guns in these places,’ and people keep getting shot to death in them,” he said. “And the answer is ‘We’ll be really serious about no guns,’ or ‘We need better background checks.’ [The Texas shooter] passed the background check. The background check is only as good as the data that goes in.”
Irvine said that while school shootings tend to get more media coverage, churches more often see frequent acts of violence.
“There’s more people killed in churches than in schools, but there’s not a lot [killed] at a time,” he said. “It’s usually one or two [people]. It’s that place where the ex can go where he knows he can find his ex-girlfriend every Sunday at 10 a.m. It’s a reliable place to stalk somebody.”
However, Jennifer Thorne, a spokesperson for Ohio Cease Fire, a group seeking tighter restrictions on firearm ownership, disagrees, saying churches are no places for guns unless in the hands of trained law enforcement.
“I know that folks are concerned, certainly with what happened in Texas, and these high-profile mass shootings are concerning,” she said. “We understand why people are afraid. But I think we have to be very careful when we look to solutions that we’re going to be doing things safer as opposed to just adding more deadly weapons into places, especially churches.”
Armed or unarmed, EUM’s Pastor Harper said despite the dangers people face, whether they be in a house of worship or elsewhere, he encourages his flock not to live in fear, for God is in control of all situations.
“Psalm 11 says ‘I’ve already run for dear life, straight to the arms of God. So why would I run away now…’ I think that says it all,” he said.