Arming the flock

In the South, some worshippers were training to use deadly force against church shooters. Then Sutherland Springs happened.

On Saturday, November 4, around a dozen churchgoers gathered in a room at the Precision Shooting Center in Forest, Mississippi, a small town 45 minutes east of Jackson. Up against one wall was a sign that read “Anything on this table is free of charge,” referring to the pot of coffee, plate of salami and cheese, and assortment of leftover Halloween candy. Fold-out tables were arranged in a U-shape around the room, and each person had a small, unloaded handgun sitting in front of them. There wasn’t much talking.

At the front of the classroom was Clyde Morgan, a 77-year-old Vietnam veteran wearing a green button-down shirt tucked neatly into black Levis. “By being on a church security team you agree to take human life,” he told the group. “To kill somebody.”

The churchgoers were there to learn how to use firearms to defend their congregation in the event of a church shooting. In the past, churches in Mississippi that wanted armed security guards would have to hire a private licensed company. But last year Mississippi passed the Church Protection Act in response to the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston that killed nine people. The new law shields churchgoers from civil litigation as long as they have an enhanced concealed carry permit, take a one-time eight hour course, and agree to have their name published in the church’s official minutes. As a result of the law, at least half a dozen churches in Mississippi have already sent security teams to train at the Precision Shooting Center, a firing range owned and operated by Morgan.

“By being on a church security team you agree to take human life.”
Clyde Morgan, who teaches a course for church security teams

The Church Protection Act requires security teams to take a course on the “safe handling and use of firearms.” Morgan is proud of the fact that his course is designed to go above and beyond what the law requires. The first half of Morgan's class is spent inside a classroom where instructors go over the basics of gun safety. The second half is spent on target practice and active shooter exercises, including a scenario where participants rush into a makeshift pastor’s study with their guns drawn after hearing a recording of gunshots played over a portable speaker. However the class does not cover emergency exit plans, how to identify potential threats, de-escalation techniques, or any kind of non-lethal force.

“Can we have police everywhere to watch out for us?” Morgan asked the room. “They can’t be everywhere.” Morgan again asked the room, but this time he wanted a response: “Who is everywhere?” One of the trainees blurted out, “We are.”

On Sunday, November 5, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and shot and killed 26 people. Stephen Willeford, a nearby neighbor armed with a rifle, heard the shots. He stepped out and exchanged fire with Kelley, wounding him in the head and torso. Then, Willeford pursued him in a car chase with the help of another bystander, Johnnie Langendorff. “All I can say is in Texas, at least we have the opportunity to have conceal carry,” Ken Paxton, The State Attorney General of Texas, said during a recent appearance on Fox News. “There’s always the opportunity that the gunman will be taken out before he has the opportunity to kill very many people.”

This narrative is familiar. After Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre told journalists at a press conference that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” At the time, the NRA suggested that the best way to prevent school shootings was to put guns in the hands of teachers. The logic is that not only would armed teachers be able to better protect themselves and their students, but future shooters would be less likely to target a school if they knew the teachers were armed.

The average annual number of church shootings has doubled in the last decade, according to a preliminary analysis from the Center for Homicide Research.

The same logic is now being applied to churches, which are experiencing more shootings than ever. The average annual number of church shootings has doubled in the last ten years, according to a preliminary analysis by Jeff Mathwig, who is responsible for updating a database of church shootings across the United States at the Center for Homicide Research. Mississippi was the first state in the country to pass a law related to church security teams, but it wasn’t the last. Texas passed the Church Security Protection Act, which also allows churches to have armed volunteer guards. In Alabama, similar legislation passed through the senate in April of this year.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration publicized its intentions to ramp up Obama-era efforts to help places like schools and places of worship develop emergency response plans as part of an initiative to reduce gun violence. Jamie Johnson, director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security, spoke to Time after the Sutherland Springs shooting. “This issue will now come to the forefront of the religious conversation in America,” he said.

Do good guys with guns stop bad guys with guns? It’s hard to say, in large part because it’s impossible to prove a counterfactual; most “good guy with a gun” proponents talk about what would have happened if the security guard outside Stephen Paddock’s hotel had been armed or, as Trump wondered, if having more guns in the Pulse night club would have prevented the massacre there. Kelley, the Sutherland Springs shooter, was killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, not by Willeford, but there is no way to know if Kelley might have gone on to kill more people that day had he not been pursued. In June, a Stanford paper based on 37 years of data purported to authoritatively show that the adoption of right-to-carry laws “substantially elevates violent crime rates.” But when it came to murder, the effect was statistically insignificant, meaning the researchers couldn’t say how or if stricter gun laws impact the murder rate.

“When you've got someone carrying a gun, there are a whole lot of bad things that can happen and very few good things,” said Ken Winter, the Executive Director of the Mississippi Association of Police Chiefs. Winter brings his gun to church, but he’s opposed to the idea of church security squads who may have minimal training. What happens if a member of a church security team sees someone they don’t know walk into a service with a legally concealed firearm? “Somebody on the church security team who may be a little bit overzealous might see this… and the next thing you know there's an altercation between the two and bullets start flying,” Winter said.

“This issue will now come to the forefront of the religious conversation in America.”
Jamie Johnson, director of the Homeland Security Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in an interview with Time

One of the participants in Morgan's class was there to receive the certification even though his church hadn’t yet officially formed a security team. “We come from a very conservative background with a lot of the conservative older people who would make the argument that God protects you,” said Caleb, who asked us not to use his last name. “They would make the argument that a Christian should not carry a gun in church because God will protect them,” he said.

“God protected me by putting a brain between my ears and giving me the ability to defend myself… but he also gave me the responsibility to protect people that can't protect themselves,” Caleb said. “I'm not going to sit idly by and watch somebody murder my family and the people that I care about whether it's at a church or a convenient store or anywhere.”

At the end of Morgan’s church security team training class, everyone who paid the $98 fee gets a certificate that looked like it was created using a Microsoft Word template. The next day, just hours after the shooting in Texas, I met up with Morgan to ask how he felt following the deadliest shooting at place of worship in the history of the United States. Morgan told me that the shooting only hardened his opinion. He believes more mass shootings will happen. “The only answer I see is you and I are going to have to be able to defend ourselves,” he said.


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