Two days after a gunman killed 26 people at a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., a pastor at a Tampa Bay, Fla., church took to Instagram.
Senior Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay Church posted a photo of the signs on his church doors: “WE ARE HEAVILY ARMED — ANY ATTEMPT WILL BE DEALT WITH DEADLY FORCE — YES WE ARE A CHURCH AND WE WILL PROTECT OUR PEOPLE.”
The signs on the 21-year-old nondenominational church are about a year old, but caught national attention on social media after Howard-Browne’s post was covered by news outlets in the weeks after the Sutherland Springs shooting.
The post has received both praise and criticism.
“Very sad that it is necessary to carry and be alert for killers while worshiping. It is our right and our duty to protect self and others — even in church,” Instagram user dorothea6111 commented.
“Awesome! Had the same idea for my church,” another Instagram user, gerswhin75, commented. “For those that are shocked by this — God will protect His people, but He expects us to do our part. That’s why we use seat belts, or wear helmets . . . just like others. We do our part, let God do His.”
Some state and federal officials have called for greater security measures in places of worship in the weeks after the shooting in Sutherland Springs, where an armed civilian returned fire on the gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley. There have been more than a dozen fatal shootings since 2012 at U.S. houses of worship, according to the Associated Press. Faith leaders say churches are particularly vulnerable.
Many of the 1,200 to 1,300 members of the River at Tampa Bay Church are armed and prepared to use their weapons if necessary, Associate Pastor Allen Hawes told the Tampa Bay Times. Hawes, who has been with the church for 15 years, has a concealed weapons license himself, he told the newspaper. The church also holds concealed weapons permit classes, he said.
“It is a deterrent,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “Look at what is going on. In the past two months, look at what happened in Texas. Look at what happened in Las Vegas. Because we are a church that is on television, we are very involved in the community. We want people to know that this is a safe zone.”
Hawes said the church follows local crime closely, including the unsolved homicides of four people in a Tampa neighborhood.
“I think just collectively, we pay very close attention,” Hawes told the Tampa Bay Times. “Look at Seminole Heights. Someone is murdering people. This stuff is happening all the time. Do you wait for another shooting to take precautions?”
Other pastors, like Southern Baptist pastor Jack Graham, say it is important for all churches — large and small — to have a security procedure in the event of a shooting.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) told Fox News shortly after the shooting that authorities cannot keep guns away from those intent on breaking the law. Concealed weapons laws, however, can let armed citizens stop a gunman before first responders arrive on a scene.
“We’ve had shootings at churches for forever,” the attorney general, who has advocated concealed-carry laws in the past, told Fox News. “It’s going to happen again, so we need people in churches — either professional security or at least arming some of the parishioners, or the congregation, so they can respond when something like this happens again.”
But Manny Garcia, the deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, criticized Paxton’s comments.
“Something is woefully wrong when elected officials wring their hands and suggest we can only stay safe by bringing arsenals to church,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “Texans deserve more from their chief law enforcement official than inaction and willful ignorance. The answer to horrific gun violence is not more of the same. Lord knows we have already had plenty of that.”
At the River at Tampa Bay Church, parishioner Julian Sutton told ABC Action News that he supports Howard-Browne and other leaders’ security measures.
“People are in a place that they should feel safe,” Sutton said. “To know that we have people that carry, in the event that something were to take place, that something like that could be stopped.”
Howard-Browne, who came to Florida from South Africa nearly 30 years ago as a missionary, was among a group of evangelical leaders who met with Trump in the Oval Office in July and laid their hands on him as he bowed in prayer. Trump gave the leaders a tour of his private quarters in the White House before he announced an executive order on religious freedom.
Howard-Browne posted photos of the meeting on Instagram and wrote in a Facebook post that Paula White asked him to pray over Trump. The pastor asked God for “supernatural wisdom, guidance and protection,” he wrote.
“Wow — we are going to see another great spiritual awakening,” he wrote.
Howard-Browne could not immediately be reached for comment.