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Armed At Church: Why This Congregation Is 'Not A Gun-Free Zone'

Pastor Ron Russell, 70, watches as members of his church practice their aim during a concealed carry lesson.
Marianne Natoli for NPR

When the parishioners at the Lighthouse Mexico Church Of God gather for worship each Sunday, many of them are armed.

The fact that they carry is no secret. The church, located in the small, upstate town of Mexico, N.Y., says on its website that it's "not a gun-free zone." Pastor Ron Russell began to encourage church members to carry concealed weapons after Dylann Roof killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. in 2015.

Russell, 70, believes that it's not just his responsibility to keep his church safe, but his sacred duty — pastors are commissioned by God to protect their flock, he says. The pastor, who's been with the church since 1994, oversees a makeshift security team that patrols the church grounds on high alert each week.

The frequency of mass shootings tripled from 2011 to 2014, and the last six months alone have seen high-profile, deadly shootings in Parkland, Fla., Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas.

The pastor attends concealed carry courses with his parishioners, where he beams with pride watching them practice their aim. If he's not proactive in his attempts to stop a mass shooting, he says, then he's complicit.

/ Marianne Natoli for NPR
Marianne Natoli for NPR

"I don't like victims," Russell said. "I like victors."

One of the church's singers, Janine Fortino, says the church's position on concealed weapons makes her feel safe. She often sings at the front of the church, where she says she's "very vulnerable." "Knowing that I'm taken care of and protected is a very good feeling," she said.

But Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at SUNY Cortland, says that there's little evidence that so-called "good guys with a gun" can provide meaningful help in a mass shooting. Last year, Stanford researchers who reviewed about four decades of crime data determined that states with right-to-carry laws experienced higher rates of violent crime than states that don't — not lower rates. "There is not even the slightest hint in the data that RTC laws reduce overall violent crime," said the paper's author.

Parishioners worship at the Lighthouse Mexico Church of God in late 2017.
Payne Horning / NPR
Parishioners worship at the Lighthouse Mexico Church of God in late 2017.

Spitzer points to a number of reasons as to why this might be true. "Armed civilians are amateurs, and they are more likely to fire a stray shot that will harm someone unintentionally," he said. "They may lose their weapon, they may mistake an armed perpetrator from another who is trying to help. There are ... more ways that things can go wrong than can go right." Well-intentioned armed civilians who try to thwart mass shootings will typically add to the mayhem and confusion for police, he also notes.

Pastor Russell has taken other measures to prevent potential shootings at the Lighthouse Mexico Church Of God beyond encouraging his congregation to carry. Together, they've taken a a series of classes on preventing mass shootings, including a police-sponsored course on situational awareness. Its teacher, Oswego County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Gaita, advocates prevention as the key to stopping mass shootings over arming civilians and focuses on identifying potential warning signs of a mass shooter.

"If I can train you what to look for," said Gaita, "then you can get involved and stop it from happening ... Because when the police respond [to a mass shooting], it's too late."

Copyright 2020 WRVO. To see more, visit WRVO.

Corrected: April 7, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story and the audio version of this story stated that parishioners at the Lighthouse Mexico Church Of God had been carrying and were encouraged to carry concealed weapons since 2013, after a shooting massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. In fact, that shooting occurred in 2015.
Payne Horning
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