Packing and praying: Why some Southwest Florida churches have armed security
February 10th 2020 – by Evan Dean
As acts of violence rattle church congregations across the U.S., some churches in SWFL are making sure they’re armed and ready.
FORT MYERS, Fla. – For tens of millions of people across the U.S., the church is a sacred place – a place for comfort, redemption, and refuge.
A place where an act of violence is seemingly unthinkable.
But shootings inside churches have become all-too-common in recent years, rattling congregations across the country.
The latest church shooting to receive national attention happened in late December at the West Freeway Church of Christ in North Texas.
A gunman killed two people but was shot dead within seconds by Jack Wilson, the volunteer head of security at the church.
Wilson, who owns a gun range, was hailed a hero by local law enforcement.
“I don’t feel like I killed a human. I killed an evil,” Wilson told NBC News after the shooting.
The violence in Texas – and the rapid containment of the threat – has again raised a question that’s been posed before: should churchgoers, specifically church security teams, carry guns?
Generally, Florida law does allow a licensed gun owner to carry a concealed firearm in a church.
Russell Howard, the lead pastor at McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers, acknowledged the sad reality that shootings in places of worship have become far too common.
“Inevitably, you wonder – could this happen to me, or to a friend, or to a colleague, or to a church that is closer to us?” Howard said in an interview with NBC2. “It is a fallen world. It is a broken world.”
McGregor Baptist is one of the biggest churches in southwest Florida, and Howard admits their approach to security has changed in recent years.
“One of our initial ideas was — let’s keep it completely discrete. For heaven’s sake, let’s not let anyone notice that we have some very alert people. That is no longer our position,” Howard explained.
While he wouldn’t share all their safety measures, Howard said McGregor Baptist has a full-fledged security team – including some members who are retired or off-duty police officers.
He said the team checks bags at the doors, has people monitoring crowds, and yes, some members do carry guns.
“While politicians in environments who, by the way, are protected by men with guns, debate how to stop mass shootings… a gentleman in Texas stopped one in six seconds,” Howard said.
“The means to containment of a violent, misbehaving person, is to de-escalate the situation. And if that calls for the disciplined and effective use of counter-measured violence, as regrettable as that is, inarguably — at least in the Texas case — and I say this with gravity, my brother, not flippancy… it worked.”
McGregor Baptist has also held active shooter training with law enforcement to keep the congregation safe. Still, Pastor Howard maintained that all that training and security is ultimately secondary.
“This church is secure to the degree the will of God deems it so. My absolute trust is in the will of God,” Howard said. “I wouldn’t wish [a shooting] to happen. I very much hope it doesn’t. But we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
NBC2 Investigators spoke with leaders at several other churches in Southwest Florida, including one pastor who said they hire an armed security team to monitor their services.
However, not every pastor believes that guns belong in churches.
Several local leaders declined to interview for the story. Some indicated that their security wasn’t quite where they wanted it to be. Others didn’t feel comfortable divulging their practices or openly discussing the topic.