Coast congregations wonder if guns are the answer after mass shooters target churches

If you go to church in South Mississippi, don't be surprised if you see someone packing a pistol.

Having armed security personnel, or at least a security plan, is something many churches are turning to as mass shootings continue to plague the country.

But that idea — of planning for violence entering the very sanctuaries that for so long served as a sacred places — isn't easy to accept for some Coast clergy.

"The word that comes to mind is vulnerability," the very Rev. Stephen Kidd of St. Marks Episcopal Church in Gulfport. "It's not about meeting violence with violence. It's just a reality."

Many churches started talking about security in 2015 after Dylann Roof walked into a Charleston church and in cold blood killed nine people at a prayer meeting.

But the last straw for many churches, including those on the Coast, was the mass shooting in November when a man walked into his estranged wife's Baptist church and killed himself and 26 others, including an unborn child.

“The primary catalyst to the idea of having our church security training for many religions was the incident in Sutherland Springs, Texas,” said Steve Mooneyham, executive director and treasurer of the Gulf Coast Baptist Association. “It was a small church and ... like a lot of things it was a domestic-type deal …. and I think we all have situations where families are dysfunctional so it really hit home.”

In response, pastors and ministers throughout Mississippi began reaching out to law enforcement officials and other professionals for training in security and active-shooter response.

A call for security

After the Texas shooting, the Rev. Claire Dobbs of First United Methodist Church in downtown Gulfport said church members began to ask her about a security plan.

She shared her concerns with other members of the Gulfport Ecumenical Fellowship, and they had heard similar comments after the Texas massacre because it happened in a small church and it was domestic-related.

"It got people beyond the thought that it only happens in big churches," Mooneyham said.

They decided to get training from professionals, as have many others across the Coast.

Gulfport Police Lt. Paul Podlin recently spoke to about 200 pastors and members of churches from Harrison, Hancock, Jackson and Pearl River counties.

Churches, he said, have to learn to adjust to thinking safety and security for their congregations.

He said mass shooters are looking for easy targets and churches have traditionally had minimal security.

“What you have to remember is active shooters are looking for soft targets because their goal is to kill as many people as they can until they are stopped.”

Guns or no guns

A gun on a Bible sat beside Gov. Phil Bryant when he signed Church Protection Act in 2016.

It allows church members to arm themselves when they are designated as security and undergo training, Podlin said at the training session.

But church leaders say individual congregations must decide if they want gun-carrying members monitoring worship services.

It's no guarantee against violence, security officials say, because most people in the midst of an attack hit their mark less than 30 percent of the time.

Coast church leaders learned some attacks simply cannot be stopped if someone is determined.

“One thing we learned is we can't think like an active shooter,” Daines said. “But there are things we can do to better prepare.”

Unarmed options

Podlin said churches can have members trained in situational awareness.

"In other words, if they see trouble coming into your church," Podlin said, "they are trained to call 911 or lock their doors down."

But some churches have taken that a step further. One in rural Harrison County said security personnel lock the doors once services begin.

Most clergy say locking doors is simply not an option because of late arrivals, and because it could portray their sanctuaries as places that are not open and welcoming to newcomers.

"Churches are known for being open, they're known for being welcoming," said the Rev. Will Shurley of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport. "They're known for not having strident defense in place because we want to make sure that people know when they come into our buildings that they've come into the house of the Lord."

When violence hits home

No deaths have been reported in churches on the Mississippi Coast, but there have been violent incidents.

On Aug. 14, 2004, a man with a gun held eight members of Hosanna Ministries of Gulfport hostage and stabbed his wife during a church services held at Mount Olive Masonic Lodge. The man eventually freed the hostages and Gulfport police arrested him on eight counts of kidnapping and aggravated assault.

In Jackson County on March 3, 2017, a group gathered for an event on the grounds of Pine Grove United Methodist Church found the remains of a woman who had been beaten and burned, allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend. Neither had any affiliation with the church.

In another incident on May 5, 2016, a man forbidden the grounds of Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Southaven was arrested after security found him with guns and explosives on the property.

Nationwide, 65 people died in church violence in 2016, according to statistics provided by the Gulfport Police Department. That number jumped to 117 last year.

According to church safety expert Carl Chinn, a fourth of church shootings are connected to robberies, 16 percent are domestic-related, 14 percent are connected to disputes, and 10 percent are brought on by mental illness.

“I think the reality of the world we live in is there are people who wish to do harm,” said Shurley. “It's regrettable and it's sad but it's simply a truth of the times we live in. Our response was to be diligent and to be prepared.”

"Christians are people of hope, are people who believe in the resurrection and so are people who are simply not going to live in fear."

Safety tips

Off-duty police officers are an option for security, but only for those congregations that can afford them. Officers at the training offered measures churches can adopt in the age of mass shootings, whether they take up arms or not:

  • Hire an off-duty police officer to provide security, which is also a visible deterrent for shooters looking for an easy target.

  • Install additional locks and lighting.

  • Establish a church security force of members to look for anything unusual. “Hired security may not pick up if someone is acting strange but a security member who is familiar with the people in the church may and can prevent something before it happens by contacting a security guard or by calling the police,” Podlin said.

  • Make sure authorities know who is on the security so they will not mistake them as the potential shooter in an attack.

  • Make a safety plan and conduct practice drills.

  • Have a medical kit on hand and learn life-saving techniques, such as administering a tourniquet to help save lives in the event of a shooting.

  • If you a see a potential shooter or fear possible violence from an intruder, try to evacuate if you can.

  • Deny a shooter access to the intended victims if possible by keeping them out of church services if possible..

  • Swarm a shooter with as many people as possible to try to stop the killing.

  • If you see something unusual or suspect possible violence, report it immediately to church security and police.

  • Install new locks and add additional lighting.

Margaret Baker 228-896-0538, margar45