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A Florida church has a warning for visitors: 'This is not a gun free zone'

By The Washington Post
Nov. 24, 2017 at 11:05 p.m.


Two days after a gunman killed 26 people at a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs a pastor at a church in Tampa Bay, Florida, 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 picked up by media 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 worshipping. 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.

"We are living in dangerous days," Graham, an evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump, said on Twitter. His Plano megachurch, he said earlier this month, is preparing to host church leaders for a security training.

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.

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