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Defending Houses of Worship: What to Do Before Your Church Becomes a Target
Written by George Harris
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 places of worship are 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 downturn because of my dad’s efforts.
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 who 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 choices 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.
Contacting Churches and Congregations
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. Out of respect for the churches of 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 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 could be legal implications that would perhaps influence the thinking of the congregation and church leadership, I consulted several attorneys for advice.
In addition, I took a Protective Shooting Class from Scott Ballard at the SIG Sauer Academy to fully orient my thinking to that of an ordinary citizen who carries a concealed firearm on a daily basis. Many 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 positions and responsibilities that they held with the organizations of which they were members. 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 their jobs for the last time and become civilians again, that mindset doesn’t usually 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 Ballard 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 an armed confrontation 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. Branca is on his third iteration of his comprehensive book The Law of Self Defense. In discussing this subject at length with Branca 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 who carry concealed must also be aware of and abide by the legal restrictions specific to that locale.
Layers of Security in Our Houses of Worship
Fortunately, most of us attend services at the same location every time and are familiar with the layout of the building and what layers of security exist in our particular house of worship. If carrying concealed is condoned in the place of worship that you attend, it is most likely that those who do carry will become acquainted with one another, which helps when things go bad. The more planning and organization that can be done, the higher the likelihood of preventing or controlling an active shooter event should something like that happen.
A publication from FEMA, 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 with which to work, although some might find it not as friendly to firearms carriers in the facility as they 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 places of worship.
I did find some interesting trends in the preparedness of 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 — 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!
External and Internal Safety Measures
The exceptions to liberal thinkers’ attitudes come 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 affluent 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 highly populated areas. The more rural congregations, particularly those smaller in size, relied on a few members who were considered prepared to defend the rest should an active shooter incident take place.
Many of those with whom I communicated 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 would inevitably 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.
Preventing an Active Shooter Attack
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, 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. 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 might be to escape. Part of that plan could 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 might 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 might 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.
Houses of Worship: Special Considerations
Written by Michael Martin
They say that the first step toward recovery is admitting that you have a problem. But in cities, towns and villages across America, we’re having a difficult time admitting that we have a problem with church security. That has to change.
We talk of our churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship as being “places of sanctuary,” and we act surprised whenever a violent attack is perpetrated against one of these locations, as though the fact that we go there to pray and commune with God will also create some kind of magical force field to keep bad things and bad people away. I apologize in advance if my next statement sounds blasphemous. If an armed attacker enters your place of worship, God is not going to stop him … but an armed volunteer just might (or a locked security door or an escape plan that has been practiced repeatedly by your parishioners). The reality is, it might take all three of those countermeasures to prevent or end an attack.
But houses of worship do face different security issues when compared to schools and private businesses (businesses not open to the public). The same “open-door” policy that makes houses of worship welcoming for parishioners and visitors is the type of environment that is attractive to the potential mass shooter selecting a target.
Regardless of their religious affiliations and regardless of their missions, houses of worship will always breed a special kind of hatred that is rarely matched. If you are a member of a synagogue or a Christian church, there are, at this very moment, any number of Islamic radicals in the U.S. and around the world who dream of burning your house of worship to the ground and killing everyone in it. If you are a member of a mosque, there are demented individuals who could, at this very moment, be planning the murder of your members. If you are a member of a church of color, regardless of your faith, there are individuals who harbor the most vile, disgusting and hateful racial views that would allow them to plan and carry out murder in the very place that you consider to be your safe sanctuary, as was the case with the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where nine parishioners were murdered simply because they were African American.
Unique Security Challenges in Houses of Worship
Security challenges faced by houses of worship include:
- Main doors and other doors are usually unlocked to maintain a welcoming atmosphere for parishioners and visitors.
- An “open-door” policy means that strangers unknown to parishioners and staff will be common.
- Most roles, including greeters, ushers, counselors, teachers and other laypeople, are staffed by part-time volunteers.
- The attitude of the house of worship, being “God’s house,” can affect strategic thinking when compared to private businesses and schools. For example, the idea of arming security volunteers might just feel wrong to those on the EOP planning committee.
- Because houses of worship consider at least one of their missions to be peace, it might be difficult to convince the planning committee or religious leaders that “fight” should be included in the Run, Hide, Fight program, particularly if armed responders are being considered as part of the plan.
A House of Worship Security Checklist
Let’s take a look at a security checklist that should be discussed and considered when developing an EOP for your house of worship. The following security checklist should be used to evaluate your house of worship’s current security and used to develop what courses of action should be selected for your EOP.
While schools can justify treating their entire interiors as “sterile zones,” where only approved and authorized individuals can make entry, the missions of houses of worship make that approach much more difficult. However, it is possible to implement the following security to outer doors:
- Visitors should be funneled through a single door or set of doors, with all other doors considered to be “fire doors,” which can be opened from the inside if the building must be evacuated but which are locked from the outside.
- Even if you choose to leave the main doors unsecured, a video security system should still be installed.
- Video cameras could also be installed at other entrances. In many cases, the appearance of monitored security is enough to deter attackers (or burglars) from attempting to make entry.
Because of the “open-door” policy of most houses of worship, the security of inner doors of offices, conference rooms, classrooms and interior doors to worship areas take on additional importance. As with schools, all inner doors should have the following security capabilities:
- All doors must have a deadbolt or auto-locking mechanism that can be secured quickly and without a key.
- Doors should have a backup lock, such as a hotel-style throw-over lock, Door Jammer or similar security doorstop.
- All doors, windows and hinges must be ballistically protected.
- Doors must be rated to withstand at least 10 minutes of forced entry.
- Shades or curtains must be pre-installed to quickly and completely block door viewports.
- As with schools, an ability to initiate lockdown must be implemented, such as providing security key fobs to staff members or volunteers, which, when pressed, will initiate the lockdown.
- When a lockdown is called, the system must automatically call law enforcement rather than requiring any individual to call 911.
- Advanced systems should provide law enforcement with a picture of what’s occurring within the house of worship through video access to the interior and exterior of the facility.
- All rooms designated as safe rooms (including classrooms, conference rooms and offices) should have a taped line marked on the floor, indicating which areas are inside or outside of the field of view from the door’s viewport.
- All safe rooms should have an intercom tied into law enforcement channels to indicate the status of the rooms’ occupants (all safe, under attack or medical assistance needed).
- All safe rooms must have emergency first-aid supplies, and volunteers and staff must be trained in their use.
Unlike school classrooms and staff rooms, houses of worship tend to have more people congregating in larger areas, which means that the most effective countermeasure could be an armed countermeasure. Unlike most public (and even private) schools across the country, houses of worship are typically not bound by state law or school board policy on whether armed personnel can be included as part of the EOP.
My recommendation is that as you consider whether an armed staff or armed volunteer program should be included in your house of worship’s EOP (and you must at least consider this as part of your plan), you follow these steps:
Through a formal or informal poll of your house of worship, determine how many of your congregants fall into the following groups:
- Sworn active-duty law enforcement officers
- Retired law enforcement officers eligible to carry a firearm under HR218
- Reserve or other law enforcement officers
- Active, reserve and retired military personnel
- Civilian firearms instructors
- Congregants licensed to carry a firearm under your state’s concealed carry laws
After understanding the experience and expertise within your congregation, my recommendation is that you form a subcommittee to the EOP planning committee to evaluate the pros and cons of establishing your own armed staff or armed volunteer program. It’s my belief that if you’ve fairly included appropriate expertise on this subcommittee, your list of pros will significantly outweigh your list of cons. In fact, it’s likely that your only cons will center around the emotional response to staff members or volunteers carrying firearms (rather than any practical objections).
Even if an armed staff member and/or armed volunteer program does become part of your plan, your discussion of an armed response shouldn’t end there.
While there are a number of states that ban the carrying of firearms in houses of worship by state statute, the vast majority of states have no such ban. What that means is that individuals licensed to carry a firearm in your state might be legally packing a firearm at the same moment they are taking Communion. Does that alarm you in any way? It shouldn’t. With more than 12 million permit holders in the United States, concealed carry permit holders should be considered among the good guys. They have passed a background check, and the vast majority have received training on the legal and practical aspects of carrying a firearm.
So in addition to polling your congregation to find those individuals experienced with firearms, I’d also suggest that you conduct another anonymous poll (using something like Survey Monkey) to find out exactly what percentage of your congregation is already carrying a firearm during services at your house of worship. You might be surprised to find out just how many there are.
While you could end this step after simply conducting the survey, my recommendation is that you hold a separate training course for those individuals so that they understand exactly how they might fit into an overall security plan. Your training for them should include:
- Making them aware that there is a formal program for designated staff members and volunteers to carry a firearm during services or during other events. This is an incredibly important step to take to avoid having a well-meaning concealed carry permit holder make an incorrect assumption about who the bad guy is (if a mass shooting were to occur).
- Include these individuals as part of the team responsible for directing congregants during a lockdown. Those procedures might include directing them to guide congregants to a safe room or through an exterior door. By giving these individuals formal roles, they will be more attuned to the status of a shooter and the status of other armed personnel, which will help in their own decision-making process as to whether an evacuation is working or if the concealed carry permit holder(s) should join in on an armed response.
- While concealed carry permit holders can choose to remain anonymous, having them known to staff members can avoid the same problem described earlier (making an incorrect assumption about who the bad guy is), and it will also lead to more collaboration and a larger feeling of a team.
In addition to having a “Welcome to our Church/Temple/Mosque” sign on your front door, I’d also recommend that you include a sign that states “Multiple Armed Personnel on the Premises Will Use Deadly Force to Protect Our Congregation.” While some in your congregation might feel that the second sign is counter to your house of worship’s mission of peace, you can take comfort in the fact that by creating and publicizing an armed staff member program, you’ll very likely never have to use it. Peace and deterrence are two missions that everyone at your house of worship should be able to get behind.
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