Alabama church shooting: Are guns in church a good idea?

A woman and her infant in Selma, Ala., are the latest victims of a church shooting that is likely to buoy concerns over church safety and gun control in the wake of the Charleston, S.C., shootings this summer. 

Alaina Denean Deshazo/ The Selma Times-Journal via AP
The Oasis Tabernacle Church in East Selma, Alabama, was the scene of a shooting on Sunday. James Minter is accused of opening fire on his girlfriend and their infant son as the three sat in church. Oasis' pastor was also shot while attempting to intervene.

James Minter will appear in court today after opening fire on his girlfriend, their infant son, and their pastor at Oasis Tabernacle Church in East Selma, Ala., Sunday morning.

Mr. Minter was seated between the woman and their one-month-old child near the front of the sanctuary at about 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, September 20, when he suddenly stood and shot them, according to NBC and the Associated Press. Oasis’ pastor, Earl Carswell, was also shot as he attempted to subdue Minter.

Minter’s girlfriend, whose name has not been released, has been discharged from the hospital. Their son is expected to be released Monday evening

Selma police have told NBC affiliate WSFA that the attack may have been motivated by the couple’s fight over child visitation rights and other relationship problems.

Minter, who fled on foot after members of the congregation wrestled away his gun, was arrested less than a mile away and charged with three counts of attempted murder. If convicted, he may face ten years to life in prison.

The shooting comes at a time when some Americans are already doubting the safety of their churches, traditionally a place of sanctuary. Congregations were shaken by the racially-motivated massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, where Dylann Storm Roof fatally shot nine parishioners during a Bible study meeting.

Like Minter, Mr. Roof had calmly entered the church and sat down before suddenly beginning his attack. At a news conference following the attack, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley mourned, “Parents are having to explain to their kids how they can go to church and feel safe, and that is not something we ever thought we’d deal with.” 

There has been an upsurge in concern about church violence, but advocates differ sharply over whether the answer is more guns, or fewer.

In roughly half of US states, concealed carry is allowed in houses of worship. In response to the Charleston shooting, gun rights activist Bryan Crosswhite told Time that keeping churches “gun-free” makes them “a major target.” Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee raised eyebrows with his own remarks, telling Fox News that gun control laws would not have been nearly as effective to stop the shooting as “if somebody in that prayer meeting had a conceal carry.”

In 2014, Guns & Ammo magazine ranked Alabama the twelfth-best state for gun owners, while the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave it a D- in its 2013 State Scorecard report, noting that it has one of the nation’s ten highest rates of gun deaths. 

The Rev. Philip Blackwell of First United Methodist Church in Chicago is one of many clergy to feel that even a preventative eye-for-an-eye approach contradicts Christian teachings, even as the number of churches using armed security guards soars. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Rev. Blackwell pointed to Jesus’ nonviolence when Roman guards came to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane as an example. “If you’re walking around carrying a gun and think that it is a tribute to the Christian Gospel, then you’ve been reading the wrong book,” he insists. 

Selma-area District Attorney Michael Jackson may agree.

“We have too many people running around with guns that don’t need to be carrying,” Jackson told WJTV. Jackson, who is the first African American recipient of the Alabama District Attorney of the Year award, in 2013, praised “heroic” churchgoers who helped take control of Minter’s gun. 

Selma, most well-known for the infamous Bloody Sunday attack on Civil Rights marchers in 1965, continues to suffer economically: according to a Mashable report, 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line, unemployment is higher than average, and the rate of violent crime is five times the Alabama average.

As reporters flocked to the Oasis Tabernacle Church yesterday, WSFA reporter Hannah Lane took a picture of the church sign's less-photographed side: “Compassion and Forgiveness.” 

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