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That’s how Wilson County Sheriff Joe D. Tackitt Jr. described the members of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, who died Nov. 5 when a heavily armed gunman stormed into the Sunday morning worship service. Clad head-to-toe in black tactical gear, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley shot two people outside the white wood-frame church before walking inside and spraying the congregation with rounds from an AR-15 rifle as he stalked up and down the aisle. Kelley killed 26 people, including the unborn baby of a pregnant woman. Another 20 people suffered injuries.
Churches are what the FBI would call a “soft target,” security consultant Mike Gurley said. They are an open-door, welcoming environment. And they don’t just open one door, they open all doors, to anyone who wants to come in. “So, in a way, the sheriff’s statement is true, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a security component in every church,” Gurley said.
Churches … are an open-door, welcoming environment. And they don’t just open one door, they open all doors, to anyone who wants to come in.
As the horrific news spilled out from the rural central Texas community, home to just 400 residents, leaders in other churches began to think about their own vulnerability and what they could do to mitigate it. In response to the increased interest, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention plans to hold four special security conferences around the state in the coming months. Mark Yoakum, the convention’s director of church ministries, fields requests for help with security plans year-round. Already in 2017, 15 churches have participated in the risk assessment process. Next year, Yoakum expects that number to double, at least.
Gurley, a retired Dallas police officer and co-founder of private security firm Teamworks Consulting, believes every church needs a security team: “In some cases, that may just be one person. In other places, it might be 10. But their responsibility is security. It’s their only job.” Small churches, which have the fewest resources to meet security needs, are probably the most vulnerable, Gurley said. Big churches often already have a police presence on campus, even if it’s only to direct traffic, but that’s a deterrent to anyone planning an attack.
This year, Texas lawmakers tried to help churches better defend themselves by removing all restrictions on security teams, which once had to complete lengthy training courses to carry weapons. Some experts encourage church members to get weapons training, but Gurley advises his clients to hire a uniformed officer if they want armed security on site. He insists the use of deadly force should be reserved for people with proper training and experience. The cost might seem high, especially for a small congregation, but he considers it a “small price to pay” for having peace of mind.
After 9/11, churches began to consider the possibility of terror attacks. But interpersonal conflicts, especially among families, pose the most danger, Gurley said. No church, no matter how small, is immune from the violence that played out in Sutherland Springs. While still trying to piece together the full motive, investigators believe Kelley chose the church because his former in-laws went there.
Attacks like the one in Sutherland Springs, now the deadliest church shooting in U.S. history, make national headlines, in part because they’re so rare. But incidents involving fewer victims are more common. Members of at least 10 churches have died in shooting attacks since 2012. “Too often they say, that can’t happen here,” Yoakum said, noting not all the churches that get assessments act on the advice. “But this is the day and time we live in.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 27 people died in the shooting, and included an incorrect reference to the gestation age of the unborn baby.