(TNS) - The mass shooting at a small Texas church that became the worst in the state’s history has ignited a debate over how far churches should go to ensure the safety of their congregations.
While some worry bringing guns into churches could disturb the peaceful and welcoming environment, others say Sunday’s actions have jolted them into action.
“Probably every church staff in America is having this conversation again,” said Mark Wingfield, associate pastor at Dallas’ Wilshire Baptist Church. “Even some of the measures we have in place, we have to ask questions about would they be effective in a situation like that.”
For years, larger churches like Wingfield’s have employed private security teams to protect their congregations. But smaller churches that couldn’t afford to pay for teams were often left without protection.
That changed after this spring’s legislative session, when Irving Republican Matt Rinaldi pushed through a little-known law change that allowed churches to use volunteers as security guards. The law went into effect in September.
On Monday, Rinaldi said Sunday’s shooting was “absolutely tragic.”
“It was exactly the thing we were trying to make people safer against,” he said. “What this hopefully will do is allow churches to get training and come up with coordinated plans and hopefully respond more effectively in the future.”
The law was controversial because it lets church volunteers forgo the licensing, training and background checks the state required of professional security personnel. Opponents say that leaves untrained volunteers in charge of volatile situations and could possibly lead to more deaths.
But Rinaldi said those concerns are overblown, and Sunday’s shooting may have encouraged churches to act and garnered new attention for the effort. In a Fox News interview, Attorney General Ken Paxton pushed for more security in churches.
“We’ve had shootings at churches forever, it’s going to happen again,” he said. “We need people in churches who are professional security or at least arming some of the parishioners or congregation so they can respond when something like this happens again.”
Law eases requirements
Before the law change, churches that wanted to set up security teams had to pay private security firms or go through the expensive process of licensing and training church members to become professional security personnel.
Getting permission from the state would cost a church $400 and an annual renewal fee of $225. On top of that, the churches would have to pay for training fees and background checks, often putting the cost out of reach for small churches like the one attacked on Sunday in Sutherland Springs, where about 50 members attended services every weekend. Authorities said 26 people were killed Sunday, including the unborn child of one slain church member.
“This is what we were arguing about the whole time,” said Steve Visser, who advocated for the law change as the owner of Hedge Protection Ministries. “There’s no way they could afford a police officer to stand there and there’s not enough police to cover all the churches. If they can’t afford it, do they need to go without it? Our argument was definitely not.”
Rinaldi said he did not know if the Sutherland Springs church had a security team or if it would have prevented deaths, but he encouraged all churches to have an “active shooter plan.”
He said many churches are still operating under the assumption that installing volunteer security teams is illegal. Before the change, operating an unlicensed volunteer team was punishable by a $10,000 fee and a Class A misdemeanor for a first offense. Subsequent offenses could lead to jail time.
Churches may take action
Visser, whose business trains volunteer security teams, said Sunday’s shooting has already increased interest in his work.
“My phone is blowing up today. I’m having national organizations contact us where they want to better organize,” he said. “Unfortunately it takes an incident like this before people begin to say, ‘What can we do?’ It’s a horrific situation.”
Roy Waymire, the chief safety officer at Coppell’s Gracepoint Church, agrees that the shooting will change how churches approach security, but he worries it won’t necessarily be for the best.
Gracepoint’s security program includes preparation for severe weather, medical and other emergencies. He said if churches focus on the rarity of an active shooter, teams might not be as prepared for those other, more likely scenarios.
“The chance of an active shooter coming into a particular church is way lower than a medical event,” Waymire said.
He also said that small churches don’t need to overspend on security teams that are much bigger than what they need.
“They don’t have to have 10 licensed security officers,” he said. “In a small church like this one, two people would’ve been plenty.”
It’s difficult to balance being an open and welcoming congregation with providing tight security, but Waymire said his team does so by monitoring every entry, keeping an eye on the parking lot and searching people with suspicious backpacks or out-of-place clothing.
Chuck Chadwick, president of the National Organization for Church Security and Safety Management, said churches have unique security issues because they advertise as a welcoming place for people from all walks of life, especially if they are troubled or seeking help.
Still, Chadwick and other opponents of the law don’t believe volunteers should be able to provide security without proper training and licensing, which his Frisco-based firm and others provide.
Chadwick said the insurance liability alone can put churches at risk if an untrained individual tries to provide security.
Law enforcement leaders are also concerned about putting security in the hands of the untrained.
“If there had been other people in that church yesterday who had been armed, would there have been more or less deaths or injury?” asked Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association. “I don’t know that we know the answer to that question.”
But supporters of allowing volunteer security teams say some protection is better than none.
“I’m not saying nobody would have died,” Visser said. “I’m just saying you have much better protection when you have armed response within seconds than minutes.”
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