Church is one place many people go to feel safe. But in the wake of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that no longer seems like a given.
On Nov. 5, Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire with an assault-style rife at the church. Twenty-six people were killed and 20 were injured. Kelley was shot at least once as he fled the church in an SUV by a neighbor of the church who heard the shots. After a high-speed chase, Kelley shot himself in the head, according to reports.
In Louisiana, concealed weapons are allowed in houses of worship under a bill singed into law in 2010 by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. The bill was written by former State Rep. Henry Burns.
“When I saw the breaking news, it broke my heart,” Burns said. “As I am learning more, if only one person in that group had been armed and could have confronted him, maybe the number of casualties wouldn’t have been as many.”
The Louisiana law allows people who are qualified to carry a concealed weapon to bring them to churches, mosques, synagogues or other houses of worship as part of a security force. The pastor or leader of the institution must announce verbally or in weekly newsletters or bulletins that there will be individuals armed on the property as members of the security force. Those chosen must undergo eight hours of tactical training each year.
“When it passed it shocked everybody,” Burns said. “Even my own church was disappointed that I carried bill like that. They didn’t support it. I told them ‘Don’t brag about it; you’ll make us the only target in town’”
Pastor Brad Jurkovich of First Baptist Church in Bossier City was at a conference in Detroit with pastors from around the country when news of the Texas shooting broke.
“It’s a very sad situation,” he said. “But if people can respond well, and prayerfully, the Lord will use those efforts to save lives.”
Jurkovich said First Baptist has had security measures in place for a number of years. The church’s chief of security coordinates all of those efforts. The team includes members involved with law enforcement and other volunteers. The key to the church’s multi-layered approach is engagement at every level, Jurkovich said.
“We have a full-time staff team that leads their ministries with awareness of security and safety,” he said. “We are all extremely engaged, from Sunday to Sunday and for special events.”
Pastor Andy Harris at Church of the Cross in Haughton said he was quick to assure his congregation that the church has a detailed plan of action for this kind of situation. Harris said security volunteers are trained to read body language and identify bizarre behavior. Volunteers patrol the parking lot and the church. He said he knows they can’t stop everyone from bringing a gun to church. and while they have not had any problems, Harris is confident his team is prepared if they ever do.
“The might sneak in and fire one shot, but it would be the last shot they ever fired,” he said.
Harris said he understands some Christians might have concerns about that position, but he takes his stance from Jesus’ words to his disciples. In Luke 22:36-37, Jeses told his disciples “he who as a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.”
“There is the tension in New Testament between turn the other cheek and get a sword,” Harris said. “Turn the check is for personal attacks. We should be willing to get along and live peaceably. We shouldn’t go picking a fight. What happened in Texas was not a turn-the-other check situation. That’s when the Lord said get a sword.”