Making sense of senseless shootings

newlifechurchrockiesA missionary center and a church were the scenes of fatal shootings yesterday in my native state of Colorado. It's always hard to write good copy following chaotic events, and I noticed there were some inconsistencies in coverage such as fluctuating totals for those wounded and killed. This post will make a few random observations about the coverage. The New York Times referred to a male security guard who stopped the murderer (police currently believe one gunman was responsible for both attacks), while the pastor of the church said the guard was a woman. Here's the New York Times:

The Colorado Springs chief of police, Richard Myers, said that after the parking-lot shootings the assailant ran into the 10,000-seat church with his high-powered rifle, and was confronted by an armed church security guard, who shot and killed him. Neither the gunman nor the victims in Colorado Springs were immediately identified by the authorities.

At a news conference last night, Chief Myers praised the security guard, whom he did not name, and said his actions had undoubtedly saved lives.

I don't know if the police chief had the sex of the guard wrong -- I seem to remember he referred to her as a female but can't find a replay of the press conference -- or if the reporter made an assumption. Either way, the Rocky Mountain News covered today's press conference by senior pastor Brady Boyd, with more information:

Boyd said the plainclothes church security officer who shot and killed the gunman has a law-enforcement background and is a member of New Life. He said the gunman made it less than 50 feet into the building.

"She did her job yesterday," Boyd said. "She's a real hero."

This is not the first time New Life Church has been in the news. It was founded by Ted Haggard, the disgraced pastor who was embroiled in a controversy after a prostitute alleged he'd had sex and done drugs with the prominent evangelical. The Times put it this way:

Just over 12 hours later in Colorado Springs, an hour's drive to the south of Arvada, a gunman also clad in dark clothing invaded the grounds of the New Life Church, a 14,000-member institution founded by the Rev. Ted Haggard, who resigned in disgrace last year after acknowledging a three-year sexual relationship with a male prostitute.

Haggard was fired from New Life Church and he wrote a letter of apology to the congregation, but he never acknowledged a three-year sexual relationship. I'm not saying I believe him -- by his own admission he's a liar and a deceiver -- but he never admitted having sex with the prostitute or taking drugs with him. He acknowledged paying for a massage and other unspecified improprieties, but the Times is overstating things. Here is how the Associated Press handled New Life's famous founder:

New Life, with about 10,000 members, was founded by the Rev. Ted Haggard, who was dismissed last year after a former male prostitute alleged he had a three-year cash-for-sex relationship with him. Haggard, then the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted committing undisclosed "sexual immorality."

Much better. The broadcast news I saw about the issue kept referring to the locations of the shootings as "religious facilities" or "religious centers." The print media have been using the preferable terms "church" and "missionary center." It seems like newswriting 101: be specific. Here is one print example of the former.

It is sobering to think how much worse this tragedy might have been had the security guard not been armed and ready to take action. In so many of this country's recent gun crimes, no armed individuals have been ready to counter the murderers. Still, I can't be alone in being surprised and intrigued that a Christian church had armed security guards. I'm still shocked they were needed. I had so many questions about why and how an armed detail came to be. The Rocky Mountain News answered some of my questions:

The pastor said he believes the size and prominence of the church -- plus publicity about it -- made it a target.

After the shooting at the Youth With A Mission center in Arvada earlier Sunday, Boyd said the church called in more than the usual number of security volunteers and "because of the extra precautions we saved many lives yesterday."

So interesting. I hope we see a bit more coverage explaining the security detail. I wonder if New Life had been targeted before and, if so, by whom. This Denver Post story says the security guard was Boyd's bodyguard. The Rocky also had this:

He also reached out to relatives of the gunman.

"Our hearts go out" to family of the shooter, Boyd said.

beatitudeIndeed, there are many families that will need comfort. Two teenage sisters were killed at New Life Church. Tiffany Johnson, 26, of Minneapolis, was killed by the gunman after she refused his request to stay the night at the missionary training center. Philip Crouse, 24, of Alaska, was also killed. Others were wounded during the shootings and are in various conditions. Religion reporter Jean Torkelson spoke with parishioners at Faith Bible Church, which is near the missionary center and loosely affiliated with it:

During morning services Sunday, with the whereabouts of the shooter unknown, police cars ringed Faith Bible Chapel. An off-duty police officer who was also a church member sat on the stage, scanning the crowd, George Morrison said.

Evelyn McHugh, who lives nearby and attends Faith Bible Chapel, noted that recently the quiet suburban neighborhood has had a shooting at the Burger King and a violent car accident on Ward Road that took the lives of several teenagers.

But McHugh said she made a point to go to church Sunday and refused to be afraid even if the shooter is still on the loose.

"I think (God) had a purpose, a goal," she said. "I'm not fearful. I choose not to live in fear."

Peter Warren mourned the two young people who died -- "they're like our own kids," he said -- and added that he rejected the notion that the tragedy was somehow "God's will."

"This cannot be pinned on God," Warren said. "God gave free will to people, and this was an ultimate act of supreme selfishness -- to take someone's life."

If ever theological questions come into play, a church shooting certainly qualifies. It's nice that reporters aren't afraid to let sources engage in theodicy. Here's another story that let parishioners speak freely about the incident and how they prayed in response. One story emphasized the Christian ethic of forgiveness. Another Denver Post story looked at how Christian ministries are vulnerable to attack and how any attack affects the larger religious community. Another one looked at the shooting in the context of New Life's troubles over the last year.

Clearly the Denver papers have been doing a great job covering this story. There will be many new angles in the days to come. Let us know if you see any good angles or bad approaches as reporters attempt to get to the bottom of this tragedy.

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