If the following USA Today story wasn't real, then some journalist would have had to have made it up.
You see, coverage of shootings in churches almost always lead to mini-waves of reports about a tricky and controversial subject -- efforts to keep churches safe and secure. Yes, we talked about church security during this week's podcast, so click here to tune that in.
The overused word "controversial" applies in this whole subject because of the tension between increased calls for gun control (which I support, especially when we're talking about military-grade weapons) and people discussing the use of off-duty police and trained volunteers to protect churches.
In news media coverage, this can turn into left-leaning calls for gun control vs. people in large, almost always conservative churches packing concealed weapons. In other words, the whole thing turns into another discussion of guns, guns, guns and more guns.
Thus, the headline on that aforementioned USA Today story: "Two accidentally shot in church while discussing church shootings." And here's the heart of that story:
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A man accidentally shot himself and his wife at an east Tennessee church on Thursday while he was showing off his gun during a discussion on recent church shootings, police said.
Elder members of First United Methodist Church in Tellico Plains were cleaning up about 1 p.m. after enjoying a luncheon held to celebrate Thanksgiving. They began talking about guns in churches, according to Tellico Plains Police Chief Russ Parks.
A man in his 80s pulled out a .380 caliber Ruger handgun and said, "I carry my handgun everywhere," according to Parks. He removed the magazine, cleared the chamber, and showed the gun to some of the men in the church. He put the magazine back in, apparently loaded a round in the chamber, and returned the gun to its holster, Parks said.
"Somebody else walked up and said, 'Can I see it?'" Parks said. "He pulled it back out and said, 'With this loaded indicator, I can tell that it’s not loaded.'"
He pulled the trigger. ... The gun was lying on its side on a table. The bullet sliced the palm of the man's upward-facing hand, then entered the left side of his wife's abdomen and exited the right side, Parks said.
The injuries sustained by this elderly couple were not life threatening. If any other guns go off during a church-security meeting, anywhere in the USA, I predict more coverage. 'Tis the season, so to speak.
Now, wed that story with this New York Times headline: "Welcoming Worshipers With Open Arms and Concealed Ones, Too." Two passages jumped out at me:
All week, since the massacre in the pews in Sutherland Springs, the Rev. Brady Martin said that members of his church, Temple Baptist Church, in Gainesville, Tex., have been coming to his office to discuss how to protect the church while still being welcoming. One asked whether the sign posted out front announcing that the church doesn’t allow the open carrying of firearms -- showing a gun with a slash through it -- could actually be sending the message that the church is vulnerable.
That's a disturbing thought -- an angle I had not thought about, in the three decades I have been covering church-security efforts.
Then I hit this quote, which was just as disturbing:
The Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of a Dallas megachurch, First Baptist Dallas, said in an interview on Fox News this week that he felt safer knowing that one-quarter to half of his congregation carries concealed weapons to services on Sunday.
“If somebody tries that in our church,” he said of the attack in Sutherland Springs, “they might get one shot off, or two shots off, and that’s the last thing they’ll ever do in this life.”
Now, part of the problem with most news coverage of this topic is that the journalists assume this is "new" news. As I mentioned earlier, I've been writing about this topic since the 1980s, when most of the coverage centered on issues of child abuse and safety. The big question: Did churches really need security guards to protect children? Did church leaders need to do background checks on each and every church volunteer who assisted in programs for kids?
Then, about 20 years ago, we started seeing shootings in churches -- by total outsiders (perhaps seeking vengeance on Christians) or people caught up in family disputes. For many, the key date was Sept. 15, 1999, when an angry outsider entered Wedgwood Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and killed seven during an evening youth-group prayer rally.
This past week, my Universal syndicate column featured an interview with a church-security expert I have been in contact with for several years now. The Rev. Jimmy Meeks is both a Southern Baptist preacher and a retired Hurst, Texas, policeman who specialized in hostage negotiations and crime prevention.
Please read this section carefully:
One of the problems, whenever another tragedy causes headlines, is that some people think the solution to every church-security problem is one word -- "guns." One critic, noted Meeks, recently accused his organization of trying to "organize an NRA convention" in a local Bible Belt church.
"Guns are not the answer," he said. "I tell people that I have the greatest safety tip in the history of safety tips -- WAKE UP."
The bottom line: "Waking up" does not mean urging throngs of church folks to start packing concealed weapons when they take their places in pews and pulpits.
"There are many people carrying guns who have no right to be doing that. They are dangerous -- dangerous to other people and dangerous to their own families," Meeks said. When a threat arises, "people don't rise to the level of whatever ability they think they have. They sink to the level of their training. ... You don't need someone who was in the military long ago bringing a weapon to church when they haven't taken a shot on a range in 20 years or gone to a safety course -- ever."
Meeks said that the biggest problem church leaders face is getting their members to talk about these issues -- at all.
Another important issue is finding a way for church members to be candid, in terms of letting church leaders know when there are problems in their families and in the wider community that could lead to public displays of anger. Clergy have to find a way to share this information with church-security teams WITHOUT violating the confidentiality of those caught up in these family dramas. Thus:
"Words come first. You have to have people trained to deal with angry words and upset people long before they bring their conflicts to church. If it gets to guns, it's too late," he said.
"But pastors just don't want to talk about all of this, because they're scared of running people off. "
In other words, it's easier -- for clergy -- to encourage their people to just to keep thinking: It can't happen here.