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Do armed security guards belong in places of worship?

Denver7 goes 360 on church security
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Posted at 4:56 PM, Jan 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-15 18:20:50-05

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DENVER -- Mass shootings in houses of worship continue to happen across the country.

One of the first mass shootings happened at a church in Colorado Springs, and most recently, a gunman killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. It begs the question: In today's reality, where places of worship have become targets for violence, should churches have armed security guards?

Jody and Mandy Earley: We embrace armed security at church

For Generations Church, a relatively new non-denominational congregation, in northwest Denver, today's reality of gun violence in places of worship is all they've ever known as a church, which is why lead pastors Jody and Mandy Earley say they have embraced armed security.

"I think it's just kind of the time we live in," said Jody Earley.

"It would be foolish for us to assume that nothing bad can happen," Mandy Earley further explained. "Our approach is to hope for the best, but plan for the worst."

For them, it's simply about being prepared.

"I wish guns didn't belong in the church. But I think the gun in and of itself is not the issue. It's whoever is controlling that," said Jody.

The Earleys have armed off-duty police officers, who also happen to be members of their church, volunteer to protect their members. But while the guards do have guns, you won't see them. They chose to keep them hidden during Sunday worship.

"[We are] simply being prepared for that, but still being a place where people feel welcomed and they don't feel judged," said Jody.

"We can stop something before it starts," said Mandy.

Rev. Mike Morran: Guns are not the solution

"More guns is not the solution to anything," said Rev. Mike Morran, with the First Unitarian Society of Denver.

Morran sees this issue through a completely different lens.

"[I am] acutely aware that there are people out in the community that are dangerous and may decide to take out their rage upon us," he said.

He leads a congregation known for taking public stands on controversial issues like immigration justice. Morran said they have had threats before, but made the decision as a congregation not to have armed security.

"We just felt philosophically, we didn't want guns walking around our property no matter who was carrying them," he explained. "They're dangerous. They hurt people."

Morran believes violence begets violence. He disagrees with the argument you need a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with one.

"Bad guys with guns do what they're going to do and people get hurt. It's just a false argument," he said.

Instead, his church is serious about security and has a written emergency action plan.

"We had 500 people here on Christmas Eve," he said. "One of the first things I said from the pulpit was, 'Just take a moment and notice where the exits are.'"

Jeff Kowell: In the right hands, guns save lives

One of the first mass church shootings happened in Colorado Springs at New Life Church.

Jeff Kowell was in charge of security when evil came to their front door on Dec. 9, 2007 and has seen firsthand how guns save lives.

"He came in. He set off a smoke bomb in the north end of the church, creating a diversion. Went around the south entrance. Set off another smoke bomb. And drove to the east end. Got out and started shooting in the parking lot," Kowell explained.

The shooter killed two people before a member of his volunteer security team ran toward the bullets.

"He made it about 75 feet inside the building, and we stopped him," said Kowell.

Jeanne Assam was that security guard.

"I said, 'Drop your weapon or I will kill you,'" she said.

Assam is a veteran police officer and was armed with a handgun. The shooter had an assault rifle.

"He could have killed me. I mean, he shot at me. We were shooting at each other. So, I'm a miracle because I didn't get hit and he was a good shot," said Assam.

Assam and Kowell both believe had she not had a gun that many more innocent lives would have been taken that day.

"If he had gotten up into the buildings ... the death toll would have been horrendous," said Kowell.

Kowell now helps churches across the country develop their own security plans. Some with guns. Others without.

"I think there's a need for it. Everyone doesn't have to have a gun," he said.

While Kowell sees a need to have at least someone with a gun to protect a church, he believes above all else that every church needs to have a security plan and thinks the best teams are not hired, but a part of the ministry.

"It's a part of the church. It's linked in with the goals of the church and the values of the church," he said.

Carl Chinn: It's time for churches to wake up

Carl Chinn is the founder of the Faith Based Security Network and has also dedicated his life to keeping places of worship safe.

"Not only are we seeing more mass murders – the counts are going up," said Chinn.

He shares some of Kowell's views, but is less concerned about guns and more concerned about churches being intentionally armed with a gun or armed with a plan. He believes churches must do something to keep their people safe.

"Many churches still ignore the dangers at their church and they say 'It probably won't happen here,'" he said.

Chinn said he thinks it's time for all places of worship to wake up. From his perspective, it's all too political.

"Churches unfortunately have fallen into the same trap that most Americans have. The only discussions they can have are a political one. And it's not political. It's about the safety and security of the people," he said.

Archdiocese of Denver: Parishes work with local law enforcement to create safety plan

The Archdiocese of Denver said every person of faith, regardless of their belief, deserves the right to worship without fear.

"First and foremost, the Archdiocese of Denver encourages our parishes to work with their local law enforcement agencies to develop a safety plan that fits their size, personnel and location," a spokesman said in a statement. "We are grateful that pretty much every police department has developed protocols for working with houses of worship."

The Archdiocese of Denver also said it has resources available for parishes and will work with them to develop best practices. They also encourage collaboration between nearby parishes.

They asked to keep the specifics of parish safety plans private.

Places of worship agree on need for a plan

While the debate over guns in church is just as polarizing in church as it is anywhere else these days, the need for a plan or some form of security is something more and more churches are starting to agree on.

"Other institutions across the country have mastered the ability to be welcoming while at the same time having security," said Chinn.