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Armed congregants kill gunman who shot 2 at Texas church

In this still frame from livestreamed video provided by law enforcement, churchgoers take cover while a congregant armed with a handgun, top left, engages a man who opened fire, near top center just right of windows, during a service at West Freeway Church of Christ, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in White Settlement, Texas. The footage was broadcast online by the church according to a law enforcement official, who provided the image to The Associated Press on condition on anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. (West Freeway Church of Christ/Courtesy of Law Enforcement via AP)

By JAKE BLEIBERG Associated Press

WHITE SETTLEMENT, Texas (AP) — A gunman who killed two people during a Texas church service was fatally shot within seconds by armed congregants, said state officials, who hailed the state’s gun laws that allow weapons in places of worship.

More than 240 people were in the West Freeway Church of Christ in the Fort Worth-area town of White Settlement during Sunday’s shooting, authorities said.

Isabel Arreola told the Star-Telegram that she sat near the gunman and that she had never seen him before the service. She said he appeared to be wearing a disguise, perhaps a fake beard, and that he made her uncomfortable.

She said the man stood up, pulled a shotgun from his clothing, opened fire and was quickly shot by two congregants who were part of a volunteer security team.

“I was so surprised because I did not know that so many in the church were armed,” she said.

Sunday’s shooting was the second attack on a religious gathering in the U.S. in less than 24 hours. On Saturday night, a man stabbed five people as they celebrated Hanukkah in an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City.

Prior to the shooting, the gunman had drawn the attention of the church’s security team because he was “acting suspiciously,” minister Jack Cummings told The New York Times. He said the team has existed for at least 10 years and is composed of congregants who are licensed to carry guns and practice shooting regularly.

Cummings said the church added the team because of “the fact that people go into schools and shoot people.”

A church official who declined to give his name told The Associated Press that the volunteer security program has been in place for about a year.

Tiffany Wallace told Dallas TV station KXAS that her father, Anton “Tony” Wallace, was one of the people killed. She said her father was a deacon at the church and had just handed out communion when the gunman approached him.

“I ran toward my dad, and the last thing I remember is him asking for oxygen. And I was just holding him, telling him I loved him and that he was going to make it,” Wallace said.

Her father was rushed to a hospital but did not survive, she said.

“You just wonder why? How can someone so evil, the devil, step into the church and do this,” she said.

At a news conference Sunday night, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the gunman was killed within six seconds of opening fire. Patrick, a Republican, praised the state’s gun laws, including a measure enacted this year that affirmed the right of licensed handgun holders to carry a weapon in places of worship, unless the facility bans them.

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.

In another attack in Texas in 1999, a gunman killed seven people in Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth before detonating an explosive device and killing himself.

On Sunday, the two congregants who drew their weapons saved an “untold number of lives,” Patrick said.

Britt Farmer, senior minister of the church, said, “We lost two great men today, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Officials have not released the names of the dead or the gunman.

The FBI was working to identify the shooter’s motive. Matthew DeSarno, the agent in charge of the agency’s Dallas office, said the assailant was “relatively transient” but had roots in the area.

DeSarno also said the gunman had been arrested multiple times in the past but declined to give details.

An elder at the church told the Times that one of those killed was a security guard who responded to the shooter.

“He was trying to do what he needed to do to protect the rest of us,” said the elder, Mike Tinius.

Tinius said he did not know the gunman and that the shooting appeared to be random.

Church officials planned to make a statement Monday evening following a closed meeting and prayer vigil just for church members, Farmer said.

In a livestream of the church service, the gunman can be seen getting up from a pew and talking to someone at the back of the church before pulling out a gun and opening fire. Congregants can be heard screaming and seen ducking under pews or running as papers fly to the floor.

Two people were treated at the scene for minor injuries sustained while ducking for cover.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott asked the state to pray for the victims, their loved ones and the community of White Settlement, about 8 miles (12 kilometers) west of Fort Worth.

“Places of worship are meant to be sacred, and I am grateful for the church members who acted quickly to take down the shooter and help prevent further loss of life,” Abbott said in a tweeted statement.

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Associated Press writers Jamie Stengle in Dallas and Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.