LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When the parishioners at one church in upstate New York gather for worship each week, many of them are armed. The church even advertises its open-carry policy online. From member station WRVO, Payne Horning reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARISHIONERS SINGING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, thank you, God. I see the light...
PAYNE HORNING, BYLINE: Walking into the Lighthouse Mexico Church of God on a Sunday morning is more like joining a family reunion than attending a service. Music plays for the first half as the parishioners move about the church, greeting one another and joining in community prayers. The pastor, Ron Russell, says he's commissioned by God to ensure their safety. And he cares for his flock with a loaded gun, as do several unidentified members of his congregation.
RON RUSSELL: Even when you walked in and you had no knowledge and I'm not going to identify who the young ladies were, but they had you pegged. And they said, he's either a reporter, or he's a stranger with a bag. And we're going to watch him. They were all armed.
HORNING: Janine Fortino, one of the church's singers, says the policy makes her feel safe, especially since she performs at the front of the church for the first half of the service.
JANINE FORTINO: I'm very vulnerable up there. And knowing that I'm taken care of and protected is a very good feeling.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)
RUSSELL: Right in the center. I seen that one.
HORNING: Twice a year, the pastor accompanies volunteers from his parish to practice at a local gun range. Pastor Russell has encouraged his parishioners to bring their firearms to church since 2013. That's when the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., was targeted in a mass shooting. But Robert Spitzer disagrees with his approach. He's a SUNY Cortland political science professor who has written extensively about gun control. Spitzer says arming civilians is actually the least desirable way to deal with violence problems.
ROBERT SPITZER: Armed civilians are amateurs, and they're more likely to fire a stray shot that might hurt somebody unintentionally. They may mistake an armed perpetrator from another person who's trying to help.
HORNING: And there's little to no evidence that so-called good guys with a gun provide meaningful help in a mass shooting.
SPITZER: There are lots of ways, more ways that things can go wrong than can go right.
HORNING: Spitzer says well-intentioned civilians with guns typically add to the mayhem and confusion for police. Michael Gaita, an Oswego County sheriff's deputy, thinks that more people should be prepared for mass shooting incidents. But rather than arming civilians, he advocates for situational awareness. It's a course he offers that focuses on preventing mass shootings by looking for warning signs.
MICHAEL GAITA: If I can train you what to look for. Then you can get involved and stop it from happening because when the police respond, it's too late.
HORNING: That police response is part of the reason Pastor Ron Russell says he's asked parishioners to carry guns. The minutes it can take law enforcement to arrive on the scene can be all it takes for a shooter to massacre a crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
HORNING: Back at the range, Russell beams with pride as he watches his parishioners, even as some miss the target entirely.
RUSSELL: I don't like victims. I like victors.
HORNING: Russell stands by his policy, saying if he's not proactive in his attempts to stop a mass shooting, then he's complicit. For NPR News, I'm Payne Horning in Hastings, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARISHIONERS SINGING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) In my soul. There's a sun coming up in my soul, in my soul. I see the light. I see the light. I see the light. I see the light.
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