Across the country, lawmakers, gun rights advocates, gun reform proponents, and even faith communities have continued to tussle over how to address mass shootings.
Recent attacks on religious communities have prompted churches in Tahlequah, Oklahoma to take steps to protect themselves.
“It would be foolish not to take notice,” said Rev. Clifton Loman, of First Lutheran Church in Tahlequah. “If it can happen there, why can’t it happen here?"
In 2018, former Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation to expand the “stand your ground” law, allowing people to take firearms into churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. Local legislators – including State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, and State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee – voted in favor of the bill.
Although law enforcement agencies can respond to emergencies in minutes, much damage and destruction can be done during that time. So some churches have taken their own proactive measures.
At First Lutheran Church, all the doors are locked from the inside, and an elder – or deacon – stands by the front door. Loman said this is to prevent the church members from being caught off guard.
“That is an ancient church practice from the persecuted church in the first couple of centuries,” Loman said. “They would meet in homes and they would have a deacon sit at the door who could alert everybody the Roman guard was coming."
First Lutheran's safety plan recommends that members not carry firearms, but they are not prohibited. The church also had Cherokee Nation Marshal Service officials tour the facility a few years ago, and the marshals suggested people with “the John Wayne attitude” who bring in weapons can put more people in danger. Loman doesn’t mind if churchgoers carry guns, though.
“As Christians, we have the duty to protect our neighbor and to love our neighbor,” he said. “So if I’m protecting my neighbor – the elderly lady, the mother with three children – from a shooter, then I’m doing my Christian duty to love them and [protect] them from this potential harm, this evil."
Not all churches have extensive security measures, and some prohibit parishioners from openly toting firearms. Interim Pastor Annette Haskins at First Presbyterian Church said guns aren't allowed in the sanctuary.
“Obviously, if somebody is going to bring it in concealed, we wouldn’t know the difference, but our policy is no guns,” she said. “If an active shooter comes in, so be it. We’re not going to live forever. We would rather be peacemakers.”
Concealed carry is allowed at South College Church of Christ. Security personnel also use concealed carry.
“We think we’re ready for anything," said Wista Waldroop, administrative professional. “We do have a [security] team and we have a police officer who goes to church here, so that helps.”
Active-shooter trainings and presentations have increased among government, school and religious groups. First Baptist Church of Tahlequah has hosted one such event, and church members are not prohibited from carrying.
“A person could have a concealed weapon and come in,” said former FBC Senior Pastor Buddy Hunt, who is now a state-level Baptist official. “They do not allow open carry. We have a security team and they would ask them to conceal it or take it back to their vehicle.”
First Baptist has installed a security system, including cameras, motion sensors, infrared cameras, and security doors. Member Andy Hudgens said the guards can carry concealed weapons, and they often conduct training to ensure their proficiency with firearms.
“We also hire one of the local Tahlequah Police [Department] officers who is off duty,” Hudgens said. “Anytime you get a large group of people together, somebody should be watching. That’s what the bad guys are looking for: an easy target to have their five seconds of fame.”