Relying on More Than Prayer

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

COLORADO SPRINGS, Dec. 11 -- After killing two young people at a missionary training center in a Denver suburb on Saturday night, but before taking the lives of two more at a megachurch on the outskirts of Colorado Springs the following afternoon, Matthew Murray posted a screed on an Internet forum.

The post, which began with the words, "you christians brought this on yourselves," was lifted almost verbatim from the note left behind by one of the killers at Columbine High School more than eight years earlier. Murray, home-schooled in a religious household, substituted "@#%$" for some obscenities but then dressed himself in black, loaded a backpack with ammunition, hoisted an assault rifle and proceeded down a worn path that in recent years of mass killings has grown dispiritingly familiar.

At least until the disillusioned young killer reached the wide, welcoming hallway that leads toward the central lobby of the New Life Church.

That's where the church returned fire.

"I was right like this," Jeanne Assam said Tuesday, demonstrating a standing shooting posture in the alcove she stepped out of at 12:30 two days earlier, firing the shots that knocked Murray onto the tile floor under the sign directing children upstairs to the Woo-Ga Room, where they go during services. [The wounded Murray then fatally shot himself in the head, an autopsy showed.] "I was hoping he didn't see me," Assam told a detective, reenacting a sequence of events that probably saved additional lives and certainly opened the eyes of an American public that had no idea that some churches are protected by congregants discreetly packing heat.

"Why are there security guards at a church?" said Gary Schneeberger, repeating a question that has been asked in recent days. Schneeberger is vice president for media relations at Focus on the Family, whose Colorado Springs lobby includes a plaque framing a bullet hole left in a wall by a man who held four people hostage in 1996.

"The reality of the situation is -- it's a sad reality, but it's a reality -- there are no sanctuaries anymore. We've seen this happen in schools, in malls, playgrounds, parks, churches. No place is safe anymore."

Assam was one of several members of the New Life congregation wearing a pistol under her church clothes and a radio earpiece under her hair. A former police officer in Minneapolis, she served as a security volunteer at the evangelical ministry. Its 10,000 members gather in a four-building complex that resembles a shopping mall and requires similar attention to crowd control and disaster planning.

"We have 40-plus security staff members over four properties: warehouse, church, elementary school, prison outreach facilities," said Sean Smith, who oversees security at the Potter's House, a 30,000-member church in Dallas. More than 400 staffers from larger congregations attended a conference on church security that Potter's House organized this year, more than double the turnout in 2005.

"When you are dealing with a large congregation on Sunday morning, it is like a small city," said Walter Ridley, the former head of the D.C. Department of Corrections who recently retired as administrator of the 13,000-member Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington.

"It is important to have technology as well as trained security personnel who are prepared and trained in all scenarios. In addition, it is important to have uniformed police officers on site to avoid situations like what happened in Colorado."

In fact, blue-suited Colorado Springs officers were stationed as usual both inside and outside the New Life complex for Sunday's service, both to help with traffic and as a visible deterrent. Church officials noted that Murray waited until the uniformed officers had departed, after the bulk of attendees left the second service.

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