On the morning of November 5, 2017, a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas was attacked by a lone gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley. The shooter claimed the lives of 26 people and injured 24 more, while countless others were left to wonder how such a heinous crime could strike in such a small, peaceful town. The massacre in Sutherland Springs is the largest mass shooting in state history, and unfortunately, this incident was not the Nation’s first tragedy to strike at a house of worship.
In the aftermath, residents, law enforcement, and other safety officials are questioning how best to prevent and respond to attacks on vulnerable community spaces, as what occurred in the First Baptist Church in Texas. While the task of safeguarding state and local communities is increasingly daunting in the face of recent tragedies, one thing is for sure: There has to be a better way of protecting churches and other soft targets.
Industry experts believe there are patterns that are identifiable in men that kill. Economic anxiety and male identity issues are among them. Mental illness is another trait that is widely considered in cases where an act of mass violence has been committed. However, it's important to note that every incident is unique, and Kelley may have had other reasons for committing violence that go beyond the "norm" or perceived patterns.
What are Soft Targets?
To understand threats posed to houses of worship and religious facilities, it is important to define “soft targets” and see what makes them susceptible to intimidation and acts of violence. Soft targets are defined as locations where people gather in groups and in spaces that are not secured like airports with metal detectors and armed security. Places like public libraries, malls, and movie theaters, as well as houses of worship, provide access to anyone who wishes to enter. This welcoming environment makes churches, synagogues, and mosques particularly vulnerable to attack. In the Sutherland Springs case, sadly, several families were in attendance at the morning service because Sunday School had just ended.
Why Did the Texas Gunman Target a Church on November 5, 2017?
Kelley’s attack was not a random act of violence, and appears to have been motivated by religious hatred. The assailant was dishonorably discharged from the air force, and had a history of domestic abuse toward his former wife and child. Though he was not a member of the First Baptist Church where the assault took place, he was familiar and had ties to it through family members and former classmates.
Kelley’s social media accounts were filled with hateful comments and posts targeting religious supporters and activists. Based on the information collected thus far, authorities do not believe Kelley was linked to an organized group of terrorism, and his obsessive hatred toward religion was likely the motivation behind the massacre. Historically, mass violence in churches is usually motivated by religious intolerance. In fact, 20% of the annual total reported hate crimes are religiously motivated, which makes places of worship even more vulnerable to attack.
How Did He Get His Weapons?
The events in Sutherland Spring have reignited a divisive argument about gun control. The attack on the First Baptist Church occurred less than a month after 58 people were killed at a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, the deadliest shooting in United States history. Kelley was carrying multiple weapons, and the gun he used to kill 26 people and injure 24 others was a Ruger AR-15 variant, though it is unclear as to how he managed to obtain the assault rifle or if he used a bump-stock similar to what Stephen Paddock used to modify his firing rate in the Las Vegas shooting. Kelley had several other weapons in his vehicle and was also carrying a handgun.
It’s unclear how Kelley managed to obtain so many deadly weapons. Kelley had applied for a right-to-carry permit, but was denied because of his dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force. While Kelley likely bought the handgun illegally, it is legal to purchase and openly carry an unregistered rifle without a permit in the state of Texas. It’s not apparent at this time whether or not Texas lawmakers will reexamine these legislative loopholes.
While gun-control is a controversial matter, and even legislators are divided over the issues, as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recommended parishioners arm themselves in response to the incident. This statement is potentially in response to local civilian and national hero, Stephen Willeford, who used a similar rifle to shoot back at Kelley as he attempted to flee the scene in an pearl-coated Ford SUV, preventing him from killing dozens more. As the gunman leaped into the SUV, Willeford waved down another civilian across the street and jumped into the passenger side of his truck while screaming for the man to follow the SUV. The car chase lasted over ten minutes and eventually came to a halt when the gunman crashed. Moments later, police found the gunman dead in the driver’s seat from what appeared to be a self-inflicted bullet wound.
What Can We Do to Protect Our Church Soft Targets?
A challenge congregations face when attempting to secure their facilities lies in the historical nature of many religious buildings. Frequently, religious buildings are designated historical landmarks, which often results in restrictions on how the facade and interior can be modified. To protect community members as they gather to practice their faith, the use of technology has proven to facilitate a safer environment such as a panic button mobile app for faster coordination with police or an anonymous tip-texting tool that aims to prevent potentially dangerous situations from happening in the first place.
Rightfully so, Texas is taking on a stronger approach to protect their congregations through the use of armed security volunteers. Texas is one of several states that have passed laws to waive state requirements on armed security detail training, licensing and background checks.
Similar to houses of worship in the state of Texas, Bishop Darnell Dixon of Raleigh, NC believes the best way to protect his church is with armed defenders. After Sundays massacre in Texas, Dixon told CBS News "If I call people together, it is incumbent on me to make sure that they are safe."
There are examples to suggest this strategy works. For instance, the gunman that attacked church goers in Colorado Springs in 2007 was shot and killed by an armed security member inside the church. Other states, including Mississippi, are following Texas's lead to reduce the requirements needed to hire staff armed security in a house of worship.