DALLAS — The mass shooting at a small Texas church late last year once again brings up the debate over church security. What's the best way to protect churches in today's violent culture?
CBN News spoke with a Texas lawmaker pushing a new law that allows church volunteers to become security guards.
Safe Image Takes a Beating
Going to church is supposed to be safe – a literal sanctuary where people meet God and find peace in a troubled world.
That tranquil image has taken a beating after several shootings, including the one in Charleston, South Carolina, at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in 2015, where nine people lost their lives during a Bible study.
"These people I knew well. These are fine people. These are all fine people," one church member overcome by emotion told CBN News.
Then there's the September shooting last year near Nashville, Tennessee, where a gunman took the life of one person and injured more than half a dozen.
Even more recently, a mass shooting took place at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In November, a gunman walked among the pews, killing 26 people ranging in age from 18 months to 77-years-old.
The Texas-based church security organization known as "Sheepdog Seminars" reports a record number of 114 violent deaths happened on faith-based property nationwide in 2017 alone.
Volunteers as Security Guards
So how should churches protect themselves? The state of Texas recently passed a law that allows them to use volunteers as security guards.
The law went into effect in September, a little more than two months before the Sutherland Springs tragedy. Texas State Representative Matt Rinaldi, R-District 115, sponsored the law.
"It's tragic that churches that are supposed to be our sanctuaries are now so dangerous we need to have security teams sometimes armed," Rinaldi told CBN News. "But it's important we do; it's important we defend them."
"Churches are increasingly targets now in today's culture, unfortunately," he added.
Rinaldi blames Texas lobbyists for a previous law.
"The problem with Texas law was that we actually passed an occupational licensing law prohibiting churches from doing security functions unless they paid somebody who is licensed to do it," he said.
"It was senseless, and I think a lot of churches in the state of Texas were actually violating the law unknowingly," Rinaldi continued.
The new law repeals that requirement, and Rinaldi believes it could be allowed across the country unless a state has passed a law banning church volunteers from serving as security.
"If you have a small church, especially that can't afford private security, you should be able to defend yourself," he said.
Rinaldi tells CBN News that, in addition to using volunteers as security, the law allows churches to set up active shooter plans, patrol their campuses and train concealed handgun license holders. The Texas lawmaker adds the law does not require training for these volunteers.
"But it's smart to do so," he said. "Actually, what this law allows the churches to do is to coordinate training for these individuals where it was previously prohibited."
"So we're allowing them to be trained by passing this law, which is very important," he continued.
Not Everyone on Board
But not everyone believes Rinaldi's law is the best way to fortify a church. The associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas has reservations about the new legislation.
"Maybe there are some churches that are better equipped to have access to trained lay security than other places," Mark Wingfield told CBN News. "And that would be a different factor."
"But there's no training required. There's no level of skill required. My understanding, the way the law is written now, anyone can be that," he continued.
News reports sparked controversy, pointing out that the law did not require church volunteers to undergo the licensing, training and background checks required of professional security officers.
Critics expressed concern inexperienced volunteers would suddenly face life-threatening situations.
"But the reality is most people who have a concealed carry license in the state of Texas have never shot their weapon, certainly in a defensive mode," Wingfield said. "So they have no experience on that."
"That's very different than having an off-duty police officer or someone who's ex-military or ex-police or someone with some other level of training," he continued.
'Some is Better than None'
Wingfield helps pastor a large church with professional security guards. He tells CBN News that some volunteers also provide some security and admits there is some good to the new law.
"I think in some cases it would work, and I'm not going to say it would never work," he said. "I would hope that all churches would be discerning about how they do that."
"There are some people who are very wise and experienced gun owners and users, and there are some people who are novices," he added.
Rinaldi says some is better than none.
"I would say it's better to have individuals providing security than not, especially in an armed situation," he said. "It didn't change the laws on who can enter a church with a handgun; what it did was change the law on how the church can train these individuals so they could do it more safely."
The state lawmaker now advises congregations to take that next step.
"The law's in place; I would encourage churches to take note of it and to come up with a plan on how to deal with these situations," he said. "Sutherland Springs was a tragedy; we're still healing as a state; we'll be healing for some time now."