Some churches turn to members to provide armed security

One woman was killed in a shooting at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ on Sunday. (WSMV)

On the heels of a deadly shooting at an Antioch church last weekend, local congregations are wondering how best to keep their members safe.

For some churches, that means assembling security teams made up of their own members who can legally carry guns.

Members of the Sylvia Baptist Church near Dickson are taking their safety into their own hands.

“I would feel safer knowing some of our members are in here carrying,” said Pastor Clark Brown.

Sylvia Baptist Church relies on a safety team of 15 unpaid volunteers who also belong to the church. The members range from law enforcement officers to first responders, according to security director Larry Storey, who is a retired Dickson police officer.

On any given Sunday, Storey said at least 10 people are carrying. The congregation boasts more than 600 members, but Pastor Brown said roughly 200 people attend each service on Sunday.

After a gunman opened fire at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ on Sunday, congregations across the state are weighing security measures.

Suspect Emanuel Samson is accused of shooting and killing Melanie Crow, 38, outside the church, before shooting six other people and pistol-whipping an usher.

That usher, Caleb Engle, went out to his car to retrieve his own gun. He then returned to the church and held Samson at gunpoint until authorities arrived.

Engle is a legal gun carrier.

The volunteer security team at Sylvia Baptist has been in place for nearly two years, Brown said. Their responsibilities include locking every door during the service, watching the parking lot and securing windows.

Several members also carry concealed weapons.

“It’s a necessary evil,” Storey said. “I had a hard time dealing with it, but it’s a necessary evil to protect my family.”

In 2015, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery released an opinion stating local churches could form their own security teams if their members work as unpaid volunteers.

Critics claim the situation could pose liabilities, especially if volunteers are untrained in firearm safety.

Private security companies must also comply with state licensing and notification laws.

Churches can circumvent those requirements by using unpaid volunteers as opposed to individuals providing contractual security services for a fee.

But Brown said he would prefer to work with a team who is familiar with the congregation than a private firm.

“The Lord is in control, but at the same time, we live in perilous times,” Brown said.

The pastor said he is also comfortable with regular members carrying their weapons inside, as long as they are legally permitted to do so.

Different churches have different security policies. The minister of a Pleasant View church said he plans to appoint anonymous persons to carry firearms during services.

Pastor Ben Houston said he would prefer to rely on licensed, professional guards to provide safety at the 23rd Psalm Ministry and Church in Nashville.

At the Harpeth Baptist Church in Kingston Springs, a safety and security team consisting of volunteers ensures the doors are locked but are not permitted to carry weapons inside the church, according to its pastor.

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