Police tape lines the scene at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ after a deadly shooting at the church on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Antioch, Tenn. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP) Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — East Tennessee church leaders are filling sanctuaries, learning to protect their flocks from armed intruders after shootings targeting Tennessee and Texas congregations.
Houses of worship without security plans "are in denial," said Blount County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Josh Blair.
"We have got to get rid of the thought that it’s never going to happen in my church," Blair told 1,100 people at a Nov. 27 "active shooter" seminar for houses of worship he led at East Maryville Baptist Church.
Sponsored by Connatix
"Do you think in Texas, when they came to church to worship the Lord, they thought someone was going to come in and shoot their church up? I guarantee they didn’t," Blair said.
It was Nov. 5 when a gunman killed 26 people, including an unborn baby, and wounded 20 more at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Six weeks earlier, on Sept. 24, a woman died and seven people were injured at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee.
After the Texas massacre, many East Tennessee churches called law enforcement seeking guidance. Their calls resulted in free Blount and Knox county security meetings. An estimated 1,000 faith representatives attended a Knox County Sheriff’s Office church safety seminar Dec. 2 at Temple Baptist Church in Powell.
Law enforcement officials often advise individual churches on safety, but such large meetings are rare. Religious leaders and law officers agreed the sessions were heartbreaking, soul-searching and necessary.
What should a church do?
Many Tennessee congregations are discussing what security they need, want and can afford. Some no longer debate guns. They worship, some for years, under the watch of security teams comprised of armed and unarmed church members.
At Antioch’s Burnette Chapel, services held after the September shooting saw a few churchgoers, handguns on hips, watching the church entrance.
Some churches employ off-duty law enforcement or private security guards. Many houses of worship create what’s called "layers of protection" — security may include employing an off-duty officer, using in-house security and locking doors.
Some congregations decide against guns. They lock doors during services, monitor security cameras, and ask members to be more watchful of anything or anyone unusual.
Who’s bringing the guns?
Josh Blair advocates churches use armed, trained security. Proper security training is key. East Tennessee law officers don’t encourage every church member with a handgun carry permit to pack a pistol to worship.
Blair asked those at the Maryville seminar to imagine an armed intruder in the church. If everyone in the congregation pulls a gun, innocent people will get hurt.
"What if every person in this room picked up a hymnal and tossed it at that gunman?" Blair suggested. "I don’t know a marksman alive that can make accurate hits if we are throwing every hymnal we got at him."
Protecting the flock
Churches must balance welcoming everyone while protecting worshipers as they consider issues like legal liability and budget constraints. Legal experts advise congregations talk to an attorney and their insurance companies as they plan.
Churches using armed security have three options, said Knox County Sheriff’s Office legal counsel Mike Ruble. Those choices are set by a Tennessee law, and the requirements surprised some church leaders at the seminars.
Congregations can hire private security forces or employ off-duty law enforcement. "If you put a police car outside your church on Sunday, that lets people know there is trained security," Blair said.
Churches often hire off-duty officers for Sunday traffic control and security. Cost varies, but ranges from $90 to $120 for three to four hours in Blount or Knox counties. Officers said more East Tennessee churches have inquired about hiring officers since the Texas shooting.
A church also can form its own team of armed and non-armed members. A church employing members as security must be certified as a proprietary security organization with the state of Tennessee. The fee is $300.
Each person, armed or not, on the church security team must complete a set course of training. Cost varies but can be $200 for 16 required hours of armed guard instruction.
‘Faith over fear’ at TVUUC
At Knoxville’s Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, gun violence isn’t a "what if." It’s what happened.
A gunman killed two people at TVUUC before being tackled by churchgoers on July 27, 2008. Jim David Adkisson pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
Senior minister the Rev. Chris Buice is reluctant to detail TVUUC’s post-shooting security. Measures include locking all but one door for services and asking staff and members to be vigilant. The church employs armed security for special events.
Buice said TVUUC worked with law enforcement for advice on church safety, something he recommends for other houses of worship.
"It’s easy to become guarded and cautious and forget that the whole mission of a church is about welcoming. It’s important to remember why are we here and how do we keep this a safe place and be true to what we are," Buice said.
"It’s about being grounded in faith not about living in fear."
‘A spiritual battle’
Church leaders say protecting members isn’t always about guns. It’s also about alertness and, sometimes, ministering. Domestic disputes and child custody issues can follow people through church doors.
"We have a unique balance — to love God and to love people, but we have to protect our (church) body as it gathers and studies the world and worships together. We don’t want people to have to look over their shoulders," said the Rev. Keith Johnson, East Maryville Baptist’s senior pastor. That church’s in-house security team includes armed and unarmed members.
"We understand that the battle we are in is a spiritual battle," Johnson said. "We can’t necessarily deal with evil except with force. And we believe that our first obligation is to protect our church family."