Texas church shooting and Hanukkah stabbing spur calls for increased security at places of worship

The shooting at the Texas church and the stabbing at a rabbi's home have renewed calls for increased security and the right to be armed in places of worship.

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By Daniella Silva

A shooting at a church in Texas and a stabbing at a rabbi's home during a Hanukkah celebration in New York over the weekend have renewed calls for increased security and the right to be armed in places of worship.

In Texas, a gunman killed two people before a volunteer armed security team shot and killed him in the church near Fort Worth on Sunday. That led Texas politicians to praise a recent law that allowed guns to be carried in places of worship.

The issue of whether worshipers should be armed breaks along the usual fault lines in the wider debate on gun laws. Supporters of gun control legislation say the better solution is to reduce gun ownership, rather than to invite weapons of death into the pews. But in Texas, which has a strong gun culture, Republicans seized on the shooting Sunday as proof of their long-held belief that more trained gun owners can prevent casualties during mass attacks.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, praised the law that allows licensed handgun holders to carry weapons in houses of worship that don't explicitly ban them. The law, which was passed after 26 people were killed at a church in Sutherland Springs in 2017, took effect in September.

On Monday, state Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Fox News that had that law not been passed, "I fear that we could have lost, you know, hundreds" in Sunday's shooting.

Paxton, a Republican, said he hoped other states would pass similar measures.

"I think they'll end up saving lives for years and years and years," he said.

Jack Wilson, a member of the volunteer security team at the church, said he was concerned about the shooter's appearance from the moment he came in wearing a wig and a fake beard.

"Most of the members there didn't feel like it would happen, but we were prepared if it did, and, you know, had we not had the security team in place, it would've been much, in my opinion, probably a much more severe outcome than what happened," he said.

In the New York attack, five people were stabbed at a rabbi's home during a Hanukkah celebration Saturday in what Gov. Andrew Cuomo called "domestic terrorism." Cuomo directed state police to increase patrols in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods across the state.

Four Jewish elected officials in New York asked Cuomo to go a step further Sunday, calling for him to declare a state of emergency and to deploy the National Guard to "visibly patrol and protect" Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.

On Sunday, according to The Associated Press, several members of the community stood guard armed with assault-style rifles. Rockland County officials later said a private security company would help municipal law enforcement patrol the community.

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Armed members of the Jewish community stand guard at a celebration in Monsey, New York, on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.Ted Shaffrey / AP

Patrick Brosnan, founder of the security firm Brosnan Risk Consultants, praised the congregants who fought back.

"You have to look this evil in the face," he said. "You have to step up. There's not enough law enforcement out there."

Carl Chinn, founder of the Faith Based Security Network, a nonprofit that offers safety guidance to faith communities, said the incidents showed the importance of volunteer security teams at places of worship in a time of increased attacks.

Chinn said he knows of more than 1,000 volunteer-run security teams in houses of worship in the United States.

"If I could say one thing to churches, it is this — have an intentional program," he said.

Paxton said at a news conference Monday afternoon that while he had not talked to Wilson, "my understanding, he was a reserve deputy and had significant training, had his own shooting range and taught other people how to shoot, had taught many people in this church how to be prepared."

The Hood County Sheriff's Office confirmed that Wilson was a reserve officer in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

Chinn said he was traveling to Texas to meet with people at the church.

"My biggest plan right now is to listen to them, to hear what they need," he said. "I'm going to hear from them and just stand with them."

He added: "There are endless lessons learned in all of this. We're trying to capture those in such a way they can help others perform this task better."

New York police officers stand guard on Sunday ahead of a gathering at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn for the victims of a machete attack at a Hannukah celebration in Monsey, New York.Amr Alfiky / Reuters

But Laura Cutilletta, managing director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said allowing easier access to guns in places of worship and armed congregants would be "very short-sighted."

"If we didn't have so many guns so readily available, we wouldn't even have this problem in the first place," she said. "Though it's very fortunate people's lives were saved in these instances, 100 people die every single day in America by gun violence, and that is the highest gun death rate of any high-income country."

Cutilletta said data show that states with the strongest gun control laws have the lowest gun death rates.

She said such laws include requiring background checks for every gun sale, regulating gun dealers, requiring permits to buy guns and requiring that guns be locked and safeguarded in the home.

"There are laws. You can see a correlation between having the law and the number of people being killed in the state," she said.

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In response to the shooting, Fred Guttenberg, an activist whose daughter was among 17 people who were killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last year, said, "Easy access to guns does NOT make us safer."

"Easy access to guns only ensures that those who are determined to kill will have the means to kill as many as possible," he wrote on Twitter.

Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, wrote on Twitter that if "more guns and fewer gun laws made Texas safer, it would be the safest state in the U.S."

"Instead, it has high rates of gun suicide and homicide, and is home to 4 of the 10 deadliest mass shootings," she wrote.

Hilary Rand Whitfield, volunteer chapter leader with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said: "Over 3,000 people per year are killed with guns in Texas, and rather than reciting gun lobby talking points, our elected officials should do something about it.

"Across Texas, there is support for common-sense policies like background checks on all gun sales and a Red Flag law, and if our public officials won't take action, we should replace them with leaders who will," she said in a statement.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Monday called for a dramatic increase in non-profit security grants and more support for federal programs to prosecute hate crimes. "Our houses of worship are targets, and they're defenseless," Schumer said during a news conference. "So bad people, hateful people, terrorists, angry people choose houses of worship over and over again."