Armed At Church: Why This Congregation Is 'Not A Gun-Free Zone'

Apr 8, 2018
Originally published on April 9, 2018 1:51 pm

When the parishioners at the Lighthouse Mexico Church Of God gather for worship each Sunday, many of them are armed.

The fact that they carry is no secret. The church, located in the small, upstate town of Mexico, N.Y., says on its website that it's "not a gun-free zone." Pastor Ron Russell began to encourage church members to carry concealed weapons after Dylann Roof killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. in 2015.

Russell, 70, believes that it's not just his responsibility to keep his church safe, but his sacred duty — pastors are commissioned by God to protect their flock, he says. The pastor, who's been with the church since 1994, oversees a makeshift security team that patrols the church grounds on high alert each week.

The frequency of mass shootings tripled from 2011 to 2014, and the last six months alone have seen high-profile, deadly shootings in Parkland, Fla., Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas.

The pastor attends concealed carry courses with his parishioners, where he beams with pride watching them practice their aim. If he's not proactive in his attempts to stop a mass shooting, he says, then he's complicit.

"I don't like victims," Russell said. "I like victors."

One of the church's singers, Janine Fortino, says the church's position on concealed weapons makes her feel safe. She often sings at the front of the church, where she says she's "very vulnerable." "Knowing that I'm taken care of and protected is a very good feeling," she said.

But Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at SUNY Cortland, says that there's little evidence that so-called "good guys with a gun" can provide meaningful help in a mass shooting. Last year, Stanford researchers who reviewed about four decades of crime data determined that states with right-to-carry laws experienced higher rates of violent crime than states that don't — not lower rates. "There is not even the slightest hint in the data that RTC laws reduce overall violent crime," said the paper's author.

Spitzer points to a number of reasons as to why this might be true. "Armed civilians are amateurs, and they are more likely to fire a stray shot that will harm someone unintentionally," he said. "They may lose their weapon, they may mistake an armed perpetrator from another who is trying to help. There are ... more ways that things can go wrong than can go right." Well-intentioned armed civilians who try to thwart mass shootings will typically add to the mayhem and confusion for police, he also notes.

Pastor Russell has taken other measures to prevent potential shootings at the Lighthouse Mexico Church Of God beyond encouraging his congregation to carry. Together, they've taken a a series of classes on preventing mass shootings, including a police-sponsored course on situational awareness. Its teacher, Oswego County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Gaita, advocates prevention as the key to stopping mass shootings over arming civilians and focuses on identifying potential warning signs of a mass shooter.

"If I can train you what to look for," said Gaita, "then you can get involved and stop it from happening ... Because when the police respond [to a mass shooting], it's too late."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When the parishioners at one church in upstate New York gather for worship each week, many of them are armed. The church even advertises its open-carry policy online. From member station WRVO, Payne Horning reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARISHIONERS SINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, thank you, God. I see the light...

PAYNE HORNING, BYLINE: Walking into the Lighthouse Mexico Church of God on a Sunday morning is more like joining a family reunion than attending a service. Music plays for the first half as the parishioners move about the church, greeting one another and joining in community prayers. The pastor, Ron Russell, says he's commissioned by God to ensure their safety. And he cares for his flock with a loaded gun, as do several unidentified members of his congregation.

RON RUSSELL: Even when you walked in and you had no knowledge and I'm not going to identify who the young ladies were, but they had you pegged. And they said, he's either a reporter, or he's a stranger with a bag. And we're going to watch him. They were all armed.

HORNING: Janine Fortino, one of the church's singers, says the policy makes her feel safe, especially since she performs at the front of the church for the first half of the service.

JANINE FORTINO: I'm very vulnerable up there. And knowing that I'm taken care of and protected is a very good feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

RUSSELL: Right in the center. I seen that one.

HORNING: Twice a year, the pastor accompanies volunteers from his parish to practice at a local gun range. Pastor Russell has encouraged his parishioners to bring their firearms to church since 2013. That's when the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., was targeted in a mass shooting. But Robert Spitzer disagrees with his approach. He's a SUNY Cortland political science professor who has written extensively about gun control. Spitzer says arming civilians is actually the least desirable way to deal with violence problems.

ROBERT SPITZER: Armed civilians are amateurs, and they're more likely to fire a stray shot that might hurt somebody unintentionally. They may mistake an armed perpetrator from another person who's trying to help.

HORNING: And there's little to no evidence that so-called good guys with a gun provide meaningful help in a mass shooting.

SPITZER: There are lots of ways, more ways that things can go wrong than can go right.

HORNING: Spitzer says well-intentioned civilians with guns typically add to the mayhem and confusion for police. Michael Gaita, an Oswego County sheriff's deputy, thinks that more people should be prepared for mass shooting incidents. But rather than arming civilians, he advocates for situational awareness. It's a course he offers that focuses on preventing mass shootings by looking for warning signs.

MICHAEL GAITA: If I can train you what to look for. Then you can get involved and stop it from happening because when the police respond, it's too late.

HORNING: That police response is part of the reason Pastor Ron Russell says he's asked parishioners to carry guns. The minutes it can take law enforcement to arrive on the scene can be all it takes for a shooter to massacre a crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

HORNING: Back at the range, Russell beams with pride as he watches his parishioners, even as some miss the target entirely.

RUSSELL: I don't like victims. I like victors.

HORNING: Russell stands by his policy, saying if he's not proactive in his attempts to stop a mass shooting, then he's complicit. For NPR News, I'm Payne Horning in Hastings, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARISHIONERS SINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) In my soul. There's a sun coming up in my soul, in my soul. I see the light. I see the light. I see the light. I see the light. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.