In late December of 2019, tragedy struck a Texas suburb when a gunman turned a weapon on the congregation of West Freeway Church of Christ, killing two. The perpetrator, a 43-year-old named Keith Kinnunen was shot down by a church security team member, ending the rampage before it could go any further. Though the attack was brief, lasting less than 10 seconds, irreparable damage and trauma were dealt with the small community.
While this shooting was a tragedy, we can use it as a somber example of the violence possible in churches, synagogues, and other places of worship, as well as the value of a security team. Keep reading this article to learn more about the lessons we can take from this attack, as well as ways community members and security teams can work to stop something like this from happening again.
When trying to decipher the factors behind shootings at places of worship, a great place to start is the community itself. The community has two sides: how it is viewed internally, and how it is viewed externally, both of which can play a part in its ultimate safety.
Starting internally, for members, churches, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship are often places of peace. Members gather weekly with other like-minded individuals, often who they’ve known for years in a location that they’re familiar with. This leads to a sense of safety that can occasionally lead to gaps in security being accidentally overlooked. A community built on trust is unlikely to suspect that one of its own would be capable of committing a crime, nor that an outsider would have any reason to disrupt a peaceful worship service. This internal view can often leave places of worship vulnerable when it comes time to identify a true threat.
Externally, things can be more complicated. The factors that lead to a shooting at a place of worship can be influenced by everything from racism, nationalism and xenophobia, to anger at a specific congregation or a simple desire to strike a community viewed as an easy target. When we imagine shootings at places of worship, we often picture a stranger with no motivation other than to cause chaos, however, internal threats are just as common as external ones.
On the day the gunman decided to carry out his attack, he prepared by putting on a disguise consisting of a wig and a trench coat. This served to ensure he wouldn’t be recognized by church members who he had met in the past and could hide his weapon: a sawed-off shotgun. Little is known about his true motivation, as he was not a long-time member of the church. There is some record he received food aid from the congregation in the past but became angry at them when they would not give him money instead.
Despite his preparation, Kinnunen only managed to fire two shots before he was fatally subdued by a volunteer security officer. Though those two shots ended in the death of two church members, the security officer, a 71-year-old named Jack Wilson, was prepared and reacted quickly and accurately to end the rampage only six seconds in. His actions no doubt saved countless lives.
Although a tragedy, the West Freeway Church of Christ shooting is an example of how invaluable a security team can be in an emergency. Wilson’s preparedness and firearm training meant he felt capable of defending the property and the people inside and was able to subdue the attacker with a single shot. This kind of preparedness is absolutely key when it comes to stopping and preventing attacks.
Preparedness can look like many things. It can look like a heightened awareness of familiar surroundings both by officers and congregation members to look for anything unusual. Several members of the West Freeway Church of Christ reported in hindsight that they had noticed Kinnunen’s unusual look and felt uneasy, but were unsure what to do. Having clear security stations and team members community members can report activity to can help identify suspicious items and individuals before they pose a threat.
Preparedness can also look like an in-depth security system that incorporates both technology and a team. Officers stationed at specific locations during services can keep an eye on who comes and goes from the main hall, and serve as protectors of specific areas. A well-trained team will be able to communicate when an officer should backup a team member and engage an attacker, and when they should focus their efforts on the defense and evacuation of civilians.
Upon hearing shots fired, Wilson was able to fall back on his training and engage the attacker as they both stood towards the entrance of the main hall. Everything that could have been done was done right in the most harrowing of situations, but preparing for the possibility of an attack before one takes place could mean that your team never has to engage at all.
Please note that this video is graphical in nature and may be disturbing.
Learn more about violence and crime prevention in religious organizations in our blog here.
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