Securing safety: Gainesville congregations talk in light of church shooting

A welcome banner waves in the breeze Friday morning, Jan. 3, outside Real Life Church on U.S. 82 in Gainesville.

A recent shooting at a church near Fort Worth has some area congregations discussing their security detail.

Travis Wadley, head security of Real Life Church, said he has talked about the Sunday, Dec. 29, shooting at West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement with members of his security team.

Wadley said reviewing the video of the shooting that left three dead gave him an idea of “things to make sure we are sharp on.”

“What they did and how they did it was huge … ,” Wadley said of the security in place at the White Settlement church.

Wearing a fake beard, a wig, a hat and a long coat, Keith Thomas Kinnunen, 43, rose up during communion at West Freeway Church of Christ, pulled a shotgun and fired.

Killed were Richard White, 67, a member of the church’s security team, and church Deacon Anton “Tony” Wallace, 64, a former Mineral Wells resident, according to CNHI News Texas staff and wire reports.

Jack Wilson, a 71-year-old former reserve sheriff’s deputy, firearms instructor and head of the church’s security team, ended the chaos in six seconds, reports state. He pulled his gun, took aim and squeezed off one shot at a distance of about 50 feet that struck and killed Kinnunen.

Wilson is also reported to be a former FBI agent.

The church’s services were livestreamed, which captured the shooting.

Wadley said while he doesn’t want something like this past Sunday’s event to happen to anyone, the video can be used as a learning tool.

“Unfortunately it gives us a better view of how people react in the moment,” he said.

On a good Sunday, the church off East U.S. 82 serves about 500 people, according to Wadley. Even smaller Sunday crowds tend to be around 350. Wednesday’s service draws about 180, most of which are children, he said.

A more than 10-member security team is put in place with radio communication for each service, he said.

The majority of the crew have a Texas License to Carry or are “working to get theirs right now,” Wadley said.

Since the White Settlement shooting, Texas officials have praised the state’s gun laws, including a measure enacted last year that affirmed the right of licensed handgun holders to carry a weapon in places of worship, unless the facility bans them, according to CNHI News Texas.

That law was passed in the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history, which was also at a church. In the 2017 massacre at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, a man who opened fire on a Sunday morning congregation killed more than two dozen people. He later killed himself.

Wadley said his security team has previously trained on active shooter events and has some additional hands-on training coming up.

It’s important that the congregation know how to handle themselves, too, he said.

“It’s a lot harder to shoot at people when you have things flying at your head,” Wadley explained after suggesting to “take and throw your Bible.”

In the coming weeks, RLC will announce an opportunity to train with the security team, he said.

Johnny Bittick, a member of First Baptist Gainesville, said members of his church’s safety team met Thursday evening, Jan. 2, at the church and discussed its security procedures in light of the White Settlement shooting.

Bittick estimated a combined 325 to 350 people attend FBG’s two Sunday worship services.

He said while there have been other church shootings, he doesn’t recall an instance where people could actually see what went down before them.

“They obviously did things right,” Bittick said. “We are trying to learn from it. Take and apply it to our church to make our church members safer.”

Bittick said being observant of visitors is key to helping the church off East Broadway Street stay secure; however, he said looks can be deceiving.

“You have to make that determination ... we want to be welcoming to anyone who comes into our church but we also want to protect our members,” he said. “It’s a complex situation.”

Gainesville Police Chief Kevin Phillips said it’s important for organizations to consider putting together security teams to respond to any kind of active attack.

“These events are going to continue to happen,” Phillips said. “Organizations need to prepare for that.”

To date, the Gainesville Police Department has about half a dozen officers who can meet with the public and teach the “Avoid, Deny, Defend” strategy using curriculum developed by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Program at Texas State University, according to Phillips.

If someone is looking to be more proactive, such as being armed, Phillips said they need to take additional, more advanced training. The department doesn’t offer that level of training to the public.

“It’s not as simple as just buying a gun,” Phillips said while stressing the importance of needing to learn how to hit a moving target in close proximity to others.

He said while a firearm is the ultimate defense against another firearm, if you are not able to handle the weapon in a tense situation, you could make things worse.

“You better be good with it,” Phillips said.

To schedule an “Avoid, Deny, Defend” presentation, contact Phillips by phone at 940-668-7777 or by email at Kphillips@gvps.org.

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