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Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church Shooting

Lesson Learned from a Church Shooting

Man holding a gun inside a church

An article based on the training module "Active Shooter Response" in the Safety Member Certification program and the Church Security Guide article "Church Safety Teams and Active Shooter Training."[1][2][3]

From the Bible

He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from them that hated me: for they were too strong for me (2 Samuel 22:18; Psalm 18:17).

The wicked watcheth the righteous, and seeketh to slay him (Psalm 37:32).

Nathan’s rebuke to King David:

“... by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme ...” (2 Samuel 12:14).


Bias and hatred are not wholly-owned by any one group of people. Violent radicals can be of any political ideology, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation or lack thereof, social class, etc. Add a little mental illness, a personality disorder, addiction, or a dysfunctional life, and it can be an explosive mix.

Most attacks on schools and places of worship are not completely random. Usually there is some reason a particular place is targeted. It could be a negative reason as at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, which was picked because preferred locations had armed security. In this shooting, there was a personal connection between the shooter and the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

Videocast and Downloads

Kris discusses the subjects of articles on a Sheepdog Church Security Academy videocast (the audio is on a Church Security Roll Call podcast). Under the video screen is a link to the "Lessons Learned Download" or "Show Notes." This is a summary of the covered article which can be printed (or attached to a message) and shared for instruction and discussion.[4][5]

Another free download is Active Shooter Situation. This 3-page PDF has an "Active Shooter Situation Checklist" which can be printed and posted in every classroom. If you do not already have it, click *HERE* to get it.

A Progressive Church

Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) is between two other places of worship, Temple Beth El and Second Presbyterian Church. It was established in Knoxville on February 26, 1949. Close to the University of Tennessee, it attracts UT students.

Like other Unitarian Universalist churches, it has no set creed and, like its neighbors on either side, it is socially progressive. This puts them at odds with many in the wider community, but they tend to co-exist peacefully with those who disagree with them. However, there are some in the area who do not want to peacefully co-exist..

Death Chords in a Guitar Case

On Sunday, July 27, 2008, the morning service was a children's program. Attendance was 200 with several visitors. A man walked in carrying a guitar case. A few may have recognized him, but since he hadn't been there in years he was a stranger to most.

He went past children waiting to go to the front and set the guitar case down in the aisle. Opening the guitar case, he pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and began firing. A congregant stood up and ran toward the shooter, shielding others. A blast killed him. As he went down, a woman was hit, wounded fatally. Six others were also hit. The youngest was seven years old. This was likely a stray shot, since he intended to kill only adults.

A bunch of people rushed the gunman, knocking the shotgun away. taking him to the floor, and injuring his right arm. The shooting was over. Emergency responders came. Police took the shooter away, his arm in a sling, while medics treated the wounded.

More than One Motive

The shooter was a trucker who was out of work. News stories did not state why he lost his trucking job, but he always had a hard time holding jobs. He was a heavy drinker, prone to binges. Good-hearted when at his best, he became violent when drunk. His one criminal record was for DUI.

A cousin said that he was always odd and was easily provoked. She also said that in his teens he resented being made to go to church.

He was a U.S. Army veteran, having been in active service from 1974-77 and in Ready Reserves until 1980.

He had been married five times. First wed at age 19, that marriage didn't last long. The last one lasted nine years. He had attended TVUUC with his fifth wife in the 1990s. Their marriage ended in 2000 when she filed for a divorce the same day she asked for a protective restraining order. He had threatened to kill her then commit suicide. After this, he rode off on his motorcycle. Eventually he made it back to the Knoxville area.

Driving truck was only the last of several jobs he had. He blamed liberals for his being out of work, even though his drinking most probably had been the cause. He also blamed African Americans for taking his jobs. Added to this was his resentment of governmental authority. When drinking, he vocalized his hatred for those he blamed for the ills of society.

When he went into TVUUC that Sunday morning, the shooter had 74 rounds with him and expected to kill people until he was killed by the police, He left a manifesto on the seat of his car. It spelled out his hatred for liberal churches, especially those who accepted gays and biracial marriages. It did not admit the role his own behavior played in his failure to stay married or employed. One also wonders whether he had a resentment of churches in general, since as a youth he resented being taken to a conservative church.

What Followed

A man, age 60, was killed as he rushed up the aisle toward the shooter. He took the shotload for others. A woman, age 61, from another congregation was there for the children's play. She was shot and died later in the hospital. One of the other victims has a lifetime disability from her wounds. The others eventually fully recovered. Ten years later, the 7-year-old, by then 17, vowed to work for peace, love, and gun control.

A firefighter who responded was surprised by the absence of hate by the congregants toward the shooter, even as they held him for police. Then the shooter's family sent the church their sympathies and an apology for his actions.

The shooter was charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder. He plead guilty to avoid the death penalty (kind of strange for someone who wanted to be killed by the police). He was sentenced to life without parole. He still lives and is in prison.

TVUUC is still open and active in the community. Rev. Chris Bruce, who was the senior pastor then, is still the pastor. Nothing is said of their security measures, but they may take more notice of strangers coming in during a service.

The public reaction to the TVUUC shooting was varied. There was a lot of sympathy from many corners. The denomination sent counselors to Knoxville. The story was covered all across the country.

Several leftist websites took advantage of the incident to blame all violence on right-wing extremists. A few went so far as to say "Christian right-wingers." They ignored violence by anyone who was left-of-center, domestically violent, mentally ill, or had personal motives. The problem in this case was that the perpetrator was anything but Christian, and his personal problems were the leading factors in his actions, since he blamed others for his own failures.

Lesson Learned: Beware of Violations of Norms

There are all kinds of things to watch for to ensure the safety of the congregation. Obviously, you try to keep out someone who begins shooting in the parking lot or a hooded and masked person dressed in black carrying an automatic rifle.

However, not all signs of danger are that obvious. In an interview with Kris, Simon Osamoh of the Worship Security Association said we should be alert for "violations of norms." These are clues that something is not normal and may be a security threat.[6][7][8]

In the interview, an example from a church shooting was given, when the deadly intruder came down the aisle during a service and approached the platform. That pattern has occurred in other incidents and is very similar to what happened at TVUUC.

Since the assailant had previously attended that church, it is easy to think that somebody would have recognized him. However, it had been at least eight years, so who at the door would have known him? Also, he was not on an alert list. There was no record of an earlier threat.

What could have been seen by a greeter or safety team member at the door? A man with a guitar case coming in after the service had started. You would expect a guitarist participating in the service to come well before it began. So ask yourself, "What could be in that guitar case?" then check it out in a discrete way, such as:

"Good morning, Sir. Welcome to Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. May I find a seat for you? Oh, by the way, I see you have a guitar. May we keep it safe for you while you enjoy the program?"

The response to this may reveal his intentions. On the other hand, the visitor may hide his intentions, knowing he will not fulfill his mission, and leave. Be prepared in case of a negative reaction. Also have another team member there for backup.

Actually, it is better to be ahead of the game by locking the front door within a minute after the service starts (all the other doors should already be locked). In that case, the late visitor has to knock or ring to get attention. The guitar case would be enough reason to call for backup before answering the door.


Be alert for anything violating expected norms. It may be nothing, but it could be a threat.

Training Notes

"Active Shooter Response" is the second of the eight Safety Member Certification training modules. All Church Safety Team members need to be trained and certified through this program. Those who complete the course and pass all the certification tests will be certified for two years. Re-certification will refresh and update their training.

Training comes in three formats:

Some workers in the church who are not members of the Safety Team are encouraged to audit training modules related to their roles. For instance:

Another Sheepdog Church Security training resource is the Church Security Guide. It has nine articles, including "Church Safety Teams and Active Shooter Training."

On Deck

The article on deck for next week is "Back to School" (Training for Safety).


Sheepdog Church Security Resources

  1. Kris Moloney, "Active Shooter Response," Safety Member Certification, Sheepdog Church Security, © 2020 [].
  2. Kris Moloney, Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security, © 2018 [].
  3. Kris Moloney, "Church Safety Teams and Active Shooter Training," Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security, © 2018 [].
  4. Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security Academy, YouTube [].
  5. Kris Moloney, Church Security Roll Call, SoundCloud [].
  6. Kris Moloney, "Situational Awareness with Simon: Special Interview with Simon Osamoh," CSRC YouTube Exclusive, Sheepdog Church Security Academy, July 20, 2022 [].
  7. Simon Osamoh, "About," Worship Security Association, n.d. [].
  8. Sheepdog Church Security affiliate link to Worship Security Association [].

News Accounts

  1. "Knoxville Unitarian Universalist church shooting," Wikipedia [].
  2. Jane Greer and Donald E. Skinner, "Two die in Knoxville church shooting," UU World, Winter 2008 [].
  3. Bob Fowler, "Accused church shooter threatened to kill wife, himself," Knox News, July 28, 2008 [].
  4. Bob Fowler, "Friends: Suspect had two sides," Knox News, July 29, 2008 [].
  5. Source: The Associated Press, "Man gets life sentence in church shooting," NBC News (WBNA), February 9, 2009 [].
  6. Matt Lakin, J.J. Stambaugh, and Scott Brooks, "One year after the TVUU church shooting: Seven affected by the event recall that day and the changes it brought in their lives," Knox News, July 26, 2009 [].
  7. Shannon Smith, "Teenage church shooting survivor uses tragedy to make change," WBIR, July 27, 2018 [].
  8. David J. Krajicek, "Tennessee church shooter was full of hate and happy to kill in 2008 attack," New York Daily News, July 1, 2018 [].