On the night of September 15, 1999, hundreds of area young people gathered for the annual, student-led ‘See You at the Pole’ prayer service at Wedgwood Baptist Church.
The church in Fort Worth, Texas sits off the highway in a subdivision that, at the time, was home to a middle- and upper-class community.
That night, September 15, would forever alter the history of the church and for a moment draw the nation’s attention, along with its horror.
Around 7 p.m., a call was made to 911.
“I’m at Wedgwood Baptist Church and we’re having a youth rally in the sanctuary and they said there is a man in there with a gun,” the woman making the call told the operator.
Larry Gene Ashbrook, 47, had entered the church with a .9 mm semi-automatic handgun, a .380-caliber handgun and about 200 rounds of ammunition. When an adult church member approached him about putting out the cigarette he was smoking, Ashbrook began shooting.
In just over 10 minutes, the shooter fired around 100 rounds, killing seven people and injuring seven more.
Several hundred other people were left traumatized, said Dan Crawford, Wedgwood member and author of “Night of Tragedy: A Dawning of Light.”
“Kids that were straight-A students suddenly started making bad grades,” Crawford said. “People lost their jobs because they couldn’t quit talking about it at work. They got fired. There were some marriages that broke up that may have been in trouble start with, but nevertheless, the trauma of the shooting destroyed some families.”
The church eventually reopened for worship. Church members would often linger long after services to talk about the shooting. Other people in the church were the few who could relate to the sudden tragedy. The nationwide American family of mass shooting survivors had not formed yet.
Wedgwood was one of the first instances of gun violence at a house of worship in modern times. The congregation was one of the first to deal with the kind of trauma that would later, and increasingly, inflict itself on congregations throughout the nation — Charleston, Sutherland Springs, Knoxville, Chicago, Atlanta and Antioch.
While the violence traumatized the Wedgwood community, it did not necessarily change the way the congregation thought about gun control, Crawford said.
“The people who were still opposed to having guns were even more opposed to it,” he said. “And the people who were in favor of everybody having a gun probably stayed that way.”
As gun violence continues to shed blood and take lives in the pews of America’s churches, the American divide over the perceived rights and morality of gun ownership plays out between churches and within congregations just as it does between families and within congressional halls.
In the faith, some Christians own guns. Some Christians hate guns. And, some Christians sell guns.
No longer safe
The threat of violence has motivated several Frederick churches to hold active shooter trainings for their congregations in the past year.
In November, the Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ hosted Lt. Mark Landahl of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office for training. Landahl explained how to respond to such an incident — for example, hiding is no longer the best advice — as well as how churches can modify their services or buildings to improve security.
The Rev. Dr. Barbara Kershner Daniel, senior pastor of ERUCC, said preparing for possible shooters is one of the modern realities churches face.
“We can’t promise that nothing is ever going to happen,” Kershner Daniel said in November. “But there are some best practices that we can all be aware of that can help minimize the chance of somebody hurting us.”
A similar training with Landahl was held at Trinity United Methodist Church in early March. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s budget included $3 million for increased security at houses of worship and an additional $2 million for schools and child care centers at risk of hate crimes.
Frederick church leaders emphasize, though, that while they can be proactive about protecting themselves by locking some doors once services begin or installing security cameras, the threat of gun violence cannot change the central tenant of Christianity. The church must continue to welcome strangers.
However, some Christian leaders have taken being proactive a step further. After a shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas in November 2017 that killed 26 people, including his 14-year-old daughter, Pastor Frank Pomeroy has become an advocate for both gun control and gun ownership.
The pastor was out of the state on the day of the shooting, gone to a certification class on teaching youth how to use single-shot rifles and handguns. Pomeroy carries a handgun with him at all times. He had a license for the gun before the shooting at his church but has since become more vigilant about carrying it.
Churches across the country, such as the Solid Rock Church in Ohio, have advocated for parishioners to bring their firearms to the service. The Ava Assembly of God in Missouri has an 18-person volunteer security team, all of whom carry firearms.
“Times have changed,” said Pastor Buddy Boyd in a February interview with NBC News. “The No. 1 concern is to protect our parishioners.”
A spectrum of stances
A church’s view on guns and gun control is largely determined by its leader and its congregation. Unlike other issues within the Christian faith — such as the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion — there are not definitive positions on guns.
Father Erik Richtsteig, pastor at St. James the Just Catholic Church in Ogden, Utah, is a supporter of the Second Amendment and often goes target shooting. When a gunshot rang out in his church on Father’s Day 2013, he could identify the caliber.
The shooter, a 35-year-old man, walked into the church and fired a single round through the back of his father-in-law’s head. A group of men from the church chased the shooter from the sanctuary and he was later apprehended by law enforcement.
Richtsteig ducked behind the pulpit when he heard the shot. He had thought about what to do in this kind of situation before and ran to the victim to deliver the “Last Rites” before he died.
What Richtsteig found was a mess but a victim who was still alive, and who would live.
“(The bullet) had knocked all of his teeth out so there was blood and bone and teeth,” Richtsteig said. “He wasn’t dead yet. Praise God his wife is a nurse, so she was able to keep his airway open.”
Richtsteig had to return to the pulpit and finish the mass. After the attack, he led his congregation in prayers for the victims along with for the shooter, as difficult as that can be. The local diocese arranged for counseling for church members.
But, similar to the aftermath at Wedgwood 14 years earlier, the event did not fundamentally change the way the church in Utah thought about guns, Richtsteig said.
A gun is a tool, said Richtsteig, who is a National Rifle Association member. While a gun was not needed that day to stop the shooter, it could have been necessary had the shooter continued firing, he said.
The reality of violence is the reality of the church in 2019, Richtsteig said.
“Unfortunately, people who are going to shoot people are going to go, first of all, where they can find people and secondly (to) people they think are defenseless,” he said.
The Catholic faith offers no clear answer on guns or gun ownership, Richtsteig said.
“There’s room within the teaching of the church for various approaches,” he said. “You cannot say because you are a Catholic you have to be against guns. That’s not the teaching of the Church.”
Instead, people of faith can offer their beliefs on the subject based on Christian writings. One of the most informative interpretations for understanding Christian ethics related to owning or using firearms comes from a 13th-century priest and theologian.
What owning a gun requires
At the time when theologian Thomas Aquinas was penning some of his most definitive works, guns were still almost a century away from arriving to Europe from the East.
His work, “Summa Theologica,” published posthumously outlines the principle of double effect, which can be applied to firearm use, said Luis Vera, assistant professor of theology and ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University.
The principle of double effect occurs when a human takes an action that causes a good and bad effect at the same time. In making a decision to act, the person must not intend the bad effect, the good effect must outweigh the bad and the amount of harm inflicted should not be out of proportion with the desired good outcome.
The principle is often applied in cases of self-defense, Vera said. A person could kill someone in self-defense but whether the action was immoral depends on intention and the extent of the violence.
“What you were simply trying to do is defend yourself,” Vera said. “Now, it doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for the side effect. But it’s different than if I will to kill a person.”
Owning a firearm gives someone the ability to create a destructive effect so, according to Aquinas, the technology should only be used to its full extent when absolutely necessary. The good effect must outweigh the bad effect.
However, Vera said, acting in self-defense must still maintain the Christian ethic of loving one’s enemy. The majority of gun owners — 67 percent — say they own a firearm for protection, according to the Pew Research Center. The person holding a gun is unlikely to know how they will react in a moment of terror or anger, Vera said.
“A lot of gun owners, they can realize this at one level, they realize that using guns requires a certain kind of self-control,” Vera said. “But they may or may not be exercising the same kinds of self-critique when it comes to why they feel the need to protect themselves in this way.”
In fact, society incentivizes not reflecting on the impact one’s actions can have on someone else. Social media has removed face-to-face reactions to hateful comments in much the same way firearm technology has allowed people to inflict damage at a distance without having to see up-close the violence a gun creates, Vera said.
“We’re more than likely just to assume that if we’re home-owning adults that were just magically bestowed with the moral capacities necessary to be that kind of person,” he said. “I think it’s a lot harder than a lot of people realize.”
Bill Kelley has spent years training people on how to use firearms. He coached the rifle team at the United States Naval Academy for 18 years before retiring in 2017.
Kelley is also the owner of The Gun Center in Frederick. The store sells a variety of firearms, from handguns to rifles to shotguns to “black guns,” or assault rifles. For more than 10 years, Kelley was on the staff of the First Baptist Church of Frederick, running the youth ministry and music programs. The two other men he started The Gun Center with were church members, too, he said.
The local businessman said his Christian faith does not conflict with his business, though he said he knows some of the firearms he has sold were used to commit suicide.
Guns are inanimate objects and not necessarily evil. While not everyone should be able to own a firearm, guns are often conveniently scapegoated instead of addressing the root causes of issues related to gun violence, Kelley said.
“It eliminates our responsibility and our own sinfulness as a source of evil,” he said. “And then when we start saying that this thing is the source of evil now, we’re off the hook.”
Kelley’s belief mirrors the often-repeated and politically polarized line, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Directing the blame about the source of evil away from inanimate objects and towards human behavior appears in several Biblical lessons. For example, drinking alcohol is not wrong but drinking to the point of drunkenness is. Having money is not necessarily wrong but the love of money is.
A gun is a tool and can be used for good or evil, Kelley said. When the store opened decades ago, the owners had to decide whether to carry firearms themselves since gun stores are often a target for theft. Twice in his time owning The Gun Center, Kelley said he has had to draw his weapon to defuse a situation where people meant him harm.
“It stopped violence. It interrupted violence because I was equal to the power that they had. And with that equality, they chose to go away,” Kelley said.
Vera made the same point as Kelley: When firearms are present in a situation the dynamics of that situation change. Those changes can be positive or negative.
“Maybe I’m wrong,” Kelley said. “Maybe I should have turned my cheek and been shot. I’m not sure that’s exactly what Jesus meant and I could be proven wrong. Maybe one day I’ll find out.”
A church that advocates
When a church in upstate New York raffled off an AR-15 as a giveaway, Rev. Alan Rudnick, DeWitt Community Church executive minister, began speaking out.
Several years later in September 2018, a gunman killed two men at a Chili’s restaurant across the street from Rudnick’s Syracuse church. Rudnick helped organize vigils and prayer services for the community.
The pastor has written articles on the need for Christians to address gun violence. Churches should play a role in advocating for public safety, he said. Shying away from the topic because it is controversial or political is not an option.
“Christians should be able to speak into our political process,” Rudnick said. “Certainly, that’s something that Jesus did himself as he spoke into the Jewish political process of his day, but also the Roman political process. … We really, as Christians, need to think critically and think reasonably about gun control measures.”
Confusion about the issue is the result of many Americans believing Christian principles drove the creation of the United States. A kind of Christian nationalism was not what the American founders were envisioning, he said.
Within the belief that the country was founded on explicitly Christian ideas is the idea that “the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of our country are somehow wrapped together within Christendom, therefore, the right to bear arms,” Rudnick said.
While some political leaders want churches, and even schools, to arm themselves, the majority of church leaders do not want guns in the sanctuary, Rudnick said.
Gun ownership is not incompatible with Christianity, Rudnick said, but there needs to be a sensitivity to the issue. People should reflect on the Christian principle of caring for one’s neighbor and being good stewards of the earth and whether those principles align with having a firearm.
“If Christians want to fight more about or express their need to have gun ownership, as it being a fundamental right, I would ask, are they in proportion advocating for the well-being and welfare of the oppressed and the sojourner?”
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 14,722 people killed and 28,179 people injured with a gun in 2018.