Once again the quiet prayer and teaching time of an American house of worship was broken by the loud explosion of gunshots, marking at least the 20th church shooting in the last decade. This past Sunday morning the first shot from the .45 Glock semiautomatic pistol fired by the 27-year-old local gunman hit the veteran's preacher's Bible, causing "the Word of God" to explode in his hands. With no Bible left to defend himself, the pastor recognized the peril he faced and tried to evade his attacker by jumping from the raised stage, only to be met by Sedlacek who fired three more shots. One of these shots crashed into the heart of 45-year-old Senior Pastor Fred Winters, the married father of two, a devastating wound that would take the charismatic preacher's life. Meantime some of the 150 church members in the first service of the day fought the gunman when his pistol jammed, some sustaining stab wounds from the now killer's 4 inch knife that he used to cut himself and others. Had his pistol not jammed, the shooter had two other loaded magazines; a total of 30 possible shots to be fired that morning.
While no known connection exists between Terry Joe Sedlacek of Troy, Illinois, and The First Baptist Church of Maryville, located just three miles away from Sedlacek's home that he shared with his mother, the gunman appeared to be a man of purpose as he entered the church at 8:30 AM and walked straight down the center aisle to the pulpit. He first exchanged a few words with Pastor Winters before pulling out his pistol and forever destroyed the peace that had existed in that chapel. Sedlacek has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery for the carnage he left on the pulpit, but meanwhile, one more community is left groping for answers.
Motive is always an important part of a crime and why Sedlacek chose to join the ranks of other emotionally challenged church shooters is currently unknown, but in this case there may be a physical as well as a psychological root cause to explain why someone would act out in this terrible way. Sedlacek, it appears, has suffered from Lyme Disease for over a decade. No one in his small community would have suspected that the local man who at times would stand in the street and shout obscenities for no apparent reason, a man without any kind of criminal record, would someday enter a local church to commit murder. We do know that Sunday, the day of the pastor's murder, was indicated to be the "death day" in the shooter's dayplanner, and that this notation, plus an index card labled "Last Day Will" that was also recovered from the shooter's home, as well as the killer's arrival at the church hours before he shot the pastor, would all suggest preplanning and malace of forethought on the part of the killer.
Researchers and patients of Lyme Disease know first hand how such a parasitic attack, one related to the bite of a tiny tick, can savage both the body and perhaps the mind of its victims. Sufferers of this disease have had vision challenges, attacks on their ability to walk, and some have heard strange voices, seen strange visions, and experienced other assaults on their senses. Some have undergone personality changes, mood swings, and the plethora of physical and psychological ailments associated with this illness.
Sedlacek was initially diagnosed as mentally ill and took dozens of drugs as a means of seeking relief, ones that apparently did him little good. He was once so sick that he was put in a medically induced coma and later even given his last rites. He would live, but had difficulty speaking and took, as his mother said, "enough medicine at night to knock a cow out, but still slept only two or three hours a night." This is a disease; say some, "that rots-your brain." All that said and done, "how many people with Lyme Disease," we must ask, "have picked up a gun, marched down the middle aisle of a church on Sunday morning and gunned down the pastor, this in front of people who were members of the same local community that were conducting fund raising events to help pay for the shooter's medication?" The fund raisers were conducted as a way to help Sedlacek deal with costs associated with damage to his left temporal lobe, a part of the brain that allows us to tell one smell and one sound from another, as well as helps us to sort new information and is believed responsible for our short-term memory. It is speculated that his 10-year-old battle with this disease may have resulted in significant damage to his brain. Next question: If this is true, why did someone so mentally/emotionally and physically challenged have access to a firearm in the first place, in reality multiple guns to include two 12-gauge shotguns, a .22-caliber rifle, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, all of which were recovered from his home.
Church Shootings across America
July 08' saw a gunman open fire in the Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN. In that case the gunman opened fire during a children's production of "Annie," his shots killing two and wounding seven. In December of 07' a gunman killed two at a Colorado missionary training center and then drove to a Denver megachurch where he killed two sisters before being shot to death by an armed security guard. The former police officer who shot the suspect said she prayed as she squeezed the trigger that stopped the spree killer's murderous rampage. The church had added extra armed security, mainly from their own membership, after the shooting the day before. Florida, Missouri, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin, California and Georgia also saw church shootings in the last decade to total at least 20 such incidents at places of worship. Jewish schools, Islamic Centers, and other similar institutions have also been witness to violence by persons choosing to act out at the tip of a gun barrel; not to rob or steal, but to wound and kill.
While many will see a house of worship or a church shooting as the work of mentally ill individuals who never should have had access to a gun, others will see such murder and mayhem as individual acts of frustration, anger and rage directed against those who go to such places to practice their own personal faith, one that others may not only disagree with, but religions whose very existence may be considered to be a blight by such shooters. While the first amendment to the US Constitution speaks of our freedom of religion and our exercise thereof, the freedom from being shot while at church cannot be guaranteed by anyone.
Some shooters, like Terry Joe Sedlacek in Illinois, have no connection to the house of worship, but can trace the cause of their actions to a physical or mental illness. Others like Sheilia W. Chaney Wilson knew those she shot at church that Sunday morning in October 03', to include her mother and the local pastor. Many similar situations, like in a violence in the workplace scenario, see the shooter injure and kill others, only to take his or her own life at the end of their spree, therefore denying society the ability to ask the critical questions, such as "why did you do this; how did you select your targets; where did you get your weapon; who else knew you were going to do this; how long have you planned this; and, why did you do it today?"
The Why of Church Shootings
While some, like the above, may strike out at individual targets because they know their victims will be at a house of worship at a particular time, others simply attack the symbol that the church may represent to the shooter. Most such shooters assume that there are not armed guards in such locations, something, however, that is changing. Many churches and places of worship are turning to private security companies, in-house resources, or off-duty law enforcement officers to provide armed security for their worship meetings. While the stated purpose of many places of worship is to minister to the needs of the local community, increasing their "flock" by becoming a spiritual house of refuge, there are those who nevertheless advocate metal detectors and behavioral screening of those who enter the church; something like is done when you pass through the screening processes at an airport. Such safety measures, though, would appear to be counterintuitive. Why would you want to screen people out when the whole point of a place of worship is to let people in?
Churches are simply a ripe target for those who choose to act out in a violent manner. So far this year, churches in 39 states have reported 141 incidents, including shots fired, robberies, burglaries and bomb threats. Some shooters are liberals, some conservatives, some act under the belief that God ordered them to do so while others do not believe in God or organized religion. And some, as Freud would say, "are just plain nuts." While there are many challenged and angry members in our society, relatively few choose to act out like Terry Sedlacek, or Sheilia Wilson, or Terry Ratzmann, the 44-year-old man who fired 22 rounds from a 9mm pistol in just under a minute, most of the bullets that crashed into the pastor, the pastor's son, and nine other members of the Living Church of God in March of 2005. Ratzmann, who grappled with his own personal demons including depression, had no known criminal record and had not made threats against others. He was, however, upset with a recent church sermon, one that suggested your problems are of their own making. Driven by his own emotionally challenges, the belief that he was about to lose his job, and the topic of the recent sermon, Ratzmann chose to enter the Milwaukee church, one that met in a Sheraton Hotel conference room, and shoot and kill seven, wound four, and then, like so many before him, take his own life before he could be questioned by police.
With every new church shooting, and there will, unfortunately, be more, we will initially be challenged as to how someone could commit such an offense, but like so many acts of violence in this country, we will eventually accept such as the "norm." As our current national financial crisis has shown, we have few original thinkers in this country; something that is also in evidence in the commission of crimes related to anger, rage, and twisted thought. The model of acting out in a house of worship, like that of violence in the workplace and school shootings, will be repeated over and over again by those who look inward for answers to their personal issues, and as a means to make others pay for daring to think, act, and even pray differently than they do. In the meantime churches have two way to try to prevent future such incidents. They need to plan for the worst and pray for the best.