Defending Your House of Worship with a Firearm – USCCA

The best thing that can be done to prevent injury and loss of life is to prevent the attack in the first place.

The best thing that can be done to prevent injury and loss of life is to prevent the attack in the first place.

All of us who celebrate the Sabbath in our chosen religion, whether it be during the weekly services or in other group meetings held at other times, need to be aware of the potential threats to our personal safety—much as in any other gathering of people. Many of us think of our religions as “peace-loving” and that our place of worship is safe from any type of conflict or violence. You have but to read the scriptures or the history books to see that there has always been disagreement leading to physical violence, up to and including all out war, between—and often within—religious sects. Just because it hasn’t happened, yet, in your locale, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening regularly in other parts of the country or the world.

Sadly, unless there is a high body count or some other distinguishing factor to sell advertising, the media won’t cover it on a wide scale.

For those of you thinking that this is a recent phenomenon, I’d like to relate to you a personal experience. My Dad was a Methodist Minister whose job was to go as a missionary into mountainous areas of Southwestern Virginia, organize a congregation, establish and build a church, then pass off the working and thriving religious group to another minister before moving to his next assignment. In one of my Dad’s assignments, the making of “moonshine whiskey” was a significant industry employing many of the local populous. As my Dad went about his work building his “flock,” it was noted by one of the more prominent bootleggers that his production and profits were taking a down turn because of my Dad’s efforts.

 

In researching this article I decided to paint this subject with a pretty broad brush in an effort to stimulate thought and perhaps provide a few answers to all of the readers of Concealed Carry Magazine.

 

One Sunday while services were being conducted, the bootlegger entered the church and fired a shot into the ceiling, proclaiming that he was going to kill the SOB that was ruining his business. As my Dad relayed the story, he and all of the rest of the occupants of the church bailed out of any opening available and left the building to the bootlegger. A happy ending to the story came with the help of the local Sheriff, who happened to be a relative of the bootlegger, in that he mediated a peaceful solution between the two differing parties, letting the local inhabitants make their own choice as to which road they wanted to follow.

I do know that my dad, who had never owned a gun, traded a banjo to his brother for an S&W .38 Special just in case an incident like that happened again. Fortunately it never did.

In researching this article I decided to paint this subject with a pretty broad brush in an effort to stimulate thought and perhaps provide a few answers to all of the readers of Concealed Carry Magazine. Out of respect for the churches and various religions that were contacted, and those that would discuss their plans and preparations for an active shooter event, all will remain anonymous in the interest of their safety.

I contacted a church with 35 active members and places of worship with thousands of members as well as memberships that fell in between the two. Congregation members from the corners to the middle of the country as well as a few outside of the country were polled as to how they and/or their fellow members would respond to an active shooter in the midst of a religious gathering. Individual trainers and security groups that were involved with church security as well as organized police, EMS, and other potential responders were asked for input into this very real and interesting subject. Realizing that there may be legal implications, which would perhaps influence the thinking of the congregation and church leadership, I consulted several attorneys for their advice.

In addition, I took a Protective Shooting Class from Scott Ballard at the Sig Sauer Academy (www.sigsaueracademy.com) to fully orient my thinking to that of an ordinary citizen that carries a concealed firearm on a daily basis. Many of our readers have been cops, military personnel, or armed professionals at some time in their lives where their actions were influenced and somewhat insulated by the position and responsibility that they held with the organization that they were a member of.

 

Fortunately, most of us attend services at the same location and are familiar with the layout of the building and what layers of security exist in that house of worship.

 

The mindset of these professionals is most often to take charge, control the situation, and save the day when trouble presents itself. The day they leave the job for the last time and they become civilians again, that mindset often doesn’t change. This can be detrimental to the new ordinary citizen in many ways simply because the game plan has changed.

Being responsible for the safety of others becomes a personal choice with associated consequences as a civilian and that puts a little different perspective on the subject. That point was driven home by what Scott called “the list.” “The list” was defined as those who you would die for, who you would go to jail for, and who you would lose all of your possessions and net worth for in the interest of their personal safety. In reality, when put in that perspective, most of our lists aren’t too long.

This consideration, added to the reality-based training drills that we did involving as many as 20 people in close quarters and having to make decisions one after the other in a perpetually changing hostile environment, showed me that many talk a good game. But when it comes down to performing under pressure, they aren’t as good as they think they are. Training such as this is invaluable for many applications, especially for armed confrontations in a house of worship where the situation is ever evolving and split second decisions mean the difference between success and failure.

This two-day class stimulated me to contact friend, attorney, author and guest Sig Sauer Academy Instructor, Andrew Branca, in reference to the legal aspects of personal defense when in a house of worship. Andrew is on his second iteration of his comprehensive book, The Law of Self Defense (www.lawofselfdefense.com). In discussing this subject at length with Andrew and referencing a copy of his newest book, I validated my thinking that the variables of a shooting scenario in a house of worship are infinite. There is no legal immunity for religious activities, meaning that those that carry concealed must also be aware of and abide by the legal restrictions specific to that locale.

Fortunately, most of us attend services at the same location and are familiar with the layout of the building and what layers of security exist in that house of worship. If carrying concealed is condoned in the place of worship that you attend, it is most likely that those who carry become acquainted with one another which helps when things go bad. The more planning and organization that can be done, the better the likelihood of preventing or controlling an active shooter event should something like that happen.

A recent publication from FEMA (www.fema.gov) titled Guide to Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship provides some valuable guidelines for dealing with a variety of emergency situations likely to affect a place of worship. Sections of the publication are devoted to planning and preparation, prevention, and responding to and dealing with the aftermath of an active shooter event.

It is quite comprehensive and provides some good guidelines to work with, although some may find it not as friendly to firearms carriers in the facility as one would like. It is definitely worth reading, along with its references, to enlighten and educate those who are intent on taking a proactive stance against the potential of an active shooter in their place of worship.

 

I was amazed by the sophisticated security measures in place from some of the larger, more afluent groups who had hired security professionals to ensure the congregational safety.

 

In my research for this article I did find some interesting trends in the preparedness of the various religions and houses of worship. Geographically, in gun friendly regions, there seems to be a more proactive approach to having an armed, organized congregation. In the more politically liberal regions of the country, many worship centers don’t feel the need to address the issue—as it isn’t a concern of the leadership or the congregation because it hasn’t happened there and there is no recognized threat. The general thinking is that guns aren’t welcome, regardless of who carries them…period!

The exceptions to the liberal thinker’s attitude comes from those outside of the predominant religious groups who have been, and in some areas today, are looked down upon and persecuted. I was amazed by the sophisticated security measures in place from some of the larger, more afluent groups who had hired security professionals to ensure the congregational safety. Economics in many cases dictated the levels of external and internal safety measures that were in place. Some chose to keep their security efforts in house, preferring to be trained by the security professionals but formulating and executing their own plans to the exclusion of anyone outside of the group.

The use of trained, organized, and armed security seemed to be more prevalent in the populated areas of higher density. The more rural congregations, particularly those smaller in size, relied on a few members that were considered prepared to defend the rest should an active shooter incident take place.

Many of those that I communicated with weren’t as concerned about an outside attack as they were about an attack from within. They felt that the perimeter of the property and the entrances to the worship hall were relatively easy to control. However, without TSA type airport screening, there was no way to be sure of what kind of armament was in the worship hall at any given time. To my knowledge, no place of worship has resorted to pat downs and electronic screening of everyone attending services at this point in time.

This of course adds to the horror of an active shooter incident from within the meeting hall in that with an unknown number of guns present, it would be all but impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. This, and not to mention shooting from within a crowd of panicking people, inevitably would result in unintended collateral damage.

As a hedge to mitigate shooting the wrong individuals, some have organized their known firearms carriers and issued them brightly colored designators to be worn around the neck when a firearms incident is taking place. There are other ideas I’m sure but the fact remains that if there is a shooting incident in a crowd of people, innocent people are inevitably going to get hurt.

Sadly, churches are not immune to evil. The time to prepare for an attack is before it comes.

Sadly, churches are not immune to evil. The time to prepare for an attack is before it comes.

The best thing that can be done to prevent injury and loss of life is to prevent the attack in the first place. If the signs are there, don’t ignore the obvious. Usually there is some cue or clue that is dismissed as unimportant, but that if acted upon, could have stopped or attenuated the violent action that took place.

Individually we can be proactive on our own in saving ourselves and the ones on “the list” that I mentioned earlier in the article. Simple awareness of the potentials and likelihoods of an active shooter event in your house of worship will get you started. Have several tested and practiced plans of action thought out prior to having to come up with one as the event unfolds. As an example, unless you and the shooter are in very close proximity to one another, the best course of action may be to escape.

Part of that plan may be in how you are seated in the meeting hall. Where are the most direct escape routes for you and those on “the list?” Being too close to an exit may put you in the direct line of fire should the attacker choose that exit as his point of entry. What are your observation capabilities when the congregation is seated and standing? An attack may play out very differently if the congregation is focused in prayer or in the midst of a song.

There are a lot of things to think about in each given situation and place of worship. What will help is to play out in your mind what the likelihoods might be and have firm in your mind what your response will be. Consider your legal parameters, moral values, personal values, and obligations in forming your response. Think of the worst case scenario and how you would respond to that situation. Think of those on “the list” and how they would fare without you to depend on in the future. These are hard questions for which there are no universal answers.

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