Faithfully Armed: Reflections on the Lakewood Church Shooting

By Jeff Gardner Published on February 14, 2024

As I read the story about the shooting at Joel Osteen’s church in Houston, Texas, I was transported back a few years to a life-altering event in our medium-sized Midwest town.

A Rage I Knew

It was evening, and I drove across town to pick up my sons after an event. On our way back home, we were nearly forced off the interstate by an erratic, aggressive driver. Flashing my lights and honking my horn to avoid a collision caused the driver of the other vehicle to smash on his brakes and weave in and out of traffic, all in an effort to force me off the road.

When I exited the interstate, the reckless driver exited in front of me, being sure to block the lane that I was using. The first traffic light after we exited was unfortunately red, and the aggressive driver screeched his vehicle to a stop.

A youngish man in his late twenties bolted out of the passenger side of the stopped four-door Hyundai sedan. He was nothing but rage, so much so that he was barely able to control himself while screaming (among other unintelligible invectives), “I’ll f***ing kill you!” as he pounded towards my vehicle.

No Stranger to Violence

I am, unfortunately, no stranger to violence or violent people. My father was savagely violent with my mother, my siblings and me, going so far as trying to kill my mother twice: once by beating her with a telephone and the other by stabbing her with a large kitchen knife. Fistfights in the neighborhoods and schoolyards where I grew up were common, and there was even the occasional knife or razor fight.

As an adult, working in places like Haiti, on the borders of the warring Democratic Republic of Congo, or in ISIS-scorched Syria, I have also had a number of close calls and near misses with chaotic, violent people.

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In short, as this man leaped from the car in front of me, I recognized in his voice, his face and his body a rage that I had seen before.

I will admit that my first instinct was an unwise one: To get out of my vehicle and meet the threat head-on. As I began to open my door, both of my sons yelled at me to stop, pleading with me to close the door and stay with them — a good call on their part.

Seeing that I was not going to get out of my vehicle and “fight him like a man” (whatever that means) made our attacker angrier, so much so that he charged forward and, in a full-fisted fury, punched (not hit or slammed) the hood of my vehicle, leaving a deep, four-knuckled dent. Just as he was moving from the hood towards my driver-side door, the driver of the Hyundai stepped out and let loose a profanity-laced tirade that convinced him to get back in their car. When the light turned green, the Hyundai sped away.

The encounter, from stopping our cars to the Hyundai driving away, took less than a minute. This, too, I know from experience that violence, horrible events that maim and ruin lives, happens quickly — not over the course of minutes, hours or days, but seconds.

As I drove away from the intersection, I called the police and gave them the car’s license plate number and a description of the passenger. Within an hour, the police asked me to look at a mugshot of a suspect, the same young man who had attacked my vehicle.

When one of the officers mentioned that the suspect was wanted for violent, criminal behavior involving an illegal weapon, I purchased a 9mm pistol to conceal and carry.

Protecting My Family

The whole episode, from dealing with the man’s road-rage to now carrying a weapon, makes me sick — literally, viscerally ill.

This is not because I am a passive, non-physical person. As a large and physically fit man, there are few things that I genuinely fear. In my professional life, I have been in and out of Iraq and Syria, and as a father and a husband at home, I have often told my family that I would do anything, including laying down my life, to protect them.

It is also not because I dislike or am not familiar with firearms. I grew up in a gun culture where hunting, handling and carrying guns (including in public) was common. I take my sons hunting and to the shooting range, carefully teaching them what guns are for (only killing, really) as well as how to handle them.

No, the whole affair has left me with a sick, unsettled feeling in my stomach because I realized, as I reflected on the rage of that young man and the shooting in Houston, Texas, that after several decades of encouraging each other’s passion “to run free,” we have let a terrible genie out of the bottle. I am not sure how we put it back.

A Passion to Run Free

I do not believe that my observations are overblown. When societies celebrate any emotion, any perversion, any sticking of ourselves or our body parts into anything or anyone that we want, we give license to social chaos. In my work in humanitarian media, I have seen the results of morally broken societies in country after country. Ravaged people and places where rage, greed, theft, adultery and envy are the order of the day. Though the location has varied from continent to continent, culture to culture, the one constant I have observed is that once “expression for expression’s sake” is celebrated, those who go through life “expressing themselves” with their fists, knives and guns will demand that they too be allowed to join the party.

Once passions and violence are set into motion, it is impossible to predict where they will go and who they will damage. That being said, my concealed weapon is not a solution to the violence and mayhem that I can see, even feel, growing underneath all of our feet. No, concealing and carrying a gun is nothing more than a response to a symptom of a much, much larger problem — a problem that goes far deeper than a guy attacking my vehicle in the street or a woman bringing an AR15 into a church. We are well into a period in our national history in which controlling our passions is seen as an oppressive affront to one’s “self-expression,” one’s “identity,” one’s “truth.”

This is an extremely dangerous time for all concerned. Controlling one’s passions is the only gateway to a peaceful and equitable society. Turning them loose to drive one’s identity, the self-centered and self-justified reason for doing whatever we feel is right, is an open invitation to evil, violence and chaos.  

America the Beautiful

But it has not always been this way. The relationship between personal restraint and a lawful society was once so well understood in our nation that the second verse of Katharine Lee Bates’ poem, “America” (which is more commonly known as “America the Beautiful”) could run as follows:

“O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

Across the wilderness.

America! America!

God mend thine ev’ry flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law.”

Self-control. Law. God’s blessings. See the connection?

Restraint of personal passions is hard work, an ongoing and drawn-out process that does not lend itself to the demands for a quick, easy fix. I try to avoid pessimism in all things, but I pray that we as a nation still have the fortitude to undertake this difficult work. Time will tell.  

Preparing for the Worst

Not long after I began carrying my concealed weapon, I sat down with my priest and asked for his permission to conceal-carry at Mass. I don’t want to bring a gun to church, but unfortunately, a concealed weapon is like a parachute: The moment you really need it, there is no time left to go and get it.

As we talked, I was expecting him to reassure me that carrying a concealed weapon at Mass was not needed, an overreaction on my part to an unfortunate episode. What he said, however, surprised and saddened me: He told me that given the number of church shootings around the country, some parishioners had already asked to form a committee to talk about how to prepare for a similar, horrible event at our church. Suggestions had been made, he noted, about everything from metal detectors to designated parishioners who concealed-carried guns. I was behind the curve, I realized and began to feel even more unsettled.

As a Catholic man and as someone who is all too familiar with violence, I did not want to conceal-carry a weapon, but from that point forward, I did. I didn’t want to change my wardrobe in order to conceal-carry a weapon, but I did. Although I have nothing against avid shooters or gun collectors, I did not want to immerse myself in concealed-carry jargon such as “printing,” “backstops,” or “in or out of waistband holsters,” but I did. In short, I have done everything that I need to do to safely, legally and effectively carry (and, God forbid, use) a concealed weapon in order to protect myself and my family.

While talking to a close friend about what had happened to me and what I did in response, I faltered, and at a loss for words, I blurted out, “I just don’t know what in the h*** is going on!” His response was succinct and wise: “Hell,” he said, “is exactly the point.”

 

Dr. Jeff Gardner holds an MA in history and a Ph.D. in Communication and Media Studies. For over a decade, he has worked in media, writing and taking photographs for various publications and organizations across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His work has been featured in numerous national and international publications and broadcasts. He teaches courses in media, culture and government at Regent University. You can reach him at jeffgardner.online.

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