Attending religious services is both a family tradition and a religious necessity for us.
All our lives, we sat in the same seats—usually the front row on the left—no matter what church the family was attending. Our family has been involved in various ministries and events that made our church family as close as our real family.
The military forced us to be a part of different churches as we moved around, but we always found a “home church” where we were welcome and safe.
But things have changed.
The shootings at churches in South Carolina and Texas, and now the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, raise a question for all attenders: What can we do to make ourselves safer when participating in one of the most common and sacred activities in America?
I had never been concerned for myself or my family’s safety at church primarily because we all fell prey to the willful ignorance of how exposed a place of worship truly is to nefarious purpose. After the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, my pastor in Columbia, South Carolina, asked me to please carry my licensed concealed weapon to services, even though we have a uniformed county sheriff’s deputy at our door to protect the congregation during services. Thankfully, this deputy was well trained, and she insisted that any approved members that were carrying a weapon meet with her and receive training to use our weapons beyond a simple state carry permit class.
All trained carry permit holders should follow a new model. In whatever church you attend now, alert the pastor that you are lawfully carrying a weapon and ask to join the church security team. If no team exists, offer to train them (or find training) and help build the team for the church—free of charge if you can.
Oddly, many churches will say no, choosing instead to assume the risk due to low probability based on local crime statistics, and faith that God will protect them. That is a wrong-headed approach.
Many people—including both authors—are now helping churches and schools do security assessments, planning for improved security methods, and even training teams of volunteers. It is unfortunate, but a trained, on-site response team is needed to appropriately address this security issue today. For leaders to deny this is to abdicate their responsibility to their flocks.
At this point, no one can say why the synagogue in Pittsburgh did not have a security team. They probably would point to statistics saying they didn’t need one—until the sad day they did.
Don’t hear us finger-wagging, “If I had been there with my gun it would have been very different!” Quite the contrary. Shooting in a room full of panicking people, running and screaming in every direction, is incredibly difficult.
The reason the military has “Tier 1” units to deal with this sort of scenario (such as SEAL Team 6 and Operational Detachment-Delta) is because it recognizes it takes extensive training, literally thousands of hours and millions of rounds of ammunition, to ensure that soldiers can successfully make that kind of shot.
A local security team won’t reach that same level, but it can still do a lot to enhance safety—and we all have a role to play.
This is the first in a series of articles about what to do if you find yourself in your seat when your church becomes a target.
The best way to survive a crisis is to avoid it in the first place. If it can’t be avoided, be prepared for it. This means a little thinking and mental preparation.
Everyone should take the time to think about where the exits of your sanctuary and building are. What hallways connect to what doors? From where might danger come if it were to happen? Can you reach you kids and then exit the building without having to move toward the danger?
Once you have identified the ways to escape danger—whether it’s a fire, an unruly person, or a deadly shooter—you can begin to do simple rehearsals. Walk the various hallways and experiment to find out the best places to sit or park so that you can escape if you need too. Make it a game for your kids, like an adventure to find the way out of a maze, so they know what to do as well.
The mind is a powerful tool. It sees patterns and attempts to make sense out of unusual situations. By doing rehearsals, the brain will identify the best option in a given situation far more quickly and with less panic because you have “already done this,” even if not “for real.”
The next step is to continue playing through scenarios. You’re in your seat and a shooter enters the rear of sanctuary—what do you do? Best advice is to get what matters most to you (your family, not your stuff), and get away from the danger. If possible, help others retreat and find a safe place if you can. If you are armed, position yourself to protect those attempting to flee.
What if you can’t flee or are near the shooter? This is where a serious look at your inner will and strength needs to take place.
If you can reach the shooter and potentially end the threat, should you? If you have a weapon and are absolutely 100 percent sure you can put rounds on the target, should you?
My best advice is, it depends. Countless witness statements, from school shootings to military after action reports, note that moving toward your threat is not what your enemy expects. Witnesses of the shooting at the recent Florida yoga studio shooting on Nov. 2 noted that an unarmed studio member charged the shooter and helped end the threat.
We would tell you to press your attack, but understand that this makes you target No. 1 for the attacker. You will likely get hurt. Given whom or what you are protecting, is it worth it? Could you actually get yourself to do it? Most of us think so, but few know for sure until the situation arises.
One fact remains indisputable: We must do more to prepare. This series is designed to raise important issues and give some baseline advice to help. We will cover a range of subjects like organizational security assessments and training, what equipment to select (including some questions you should answer when selecting a personal firearm), and what sort of first aid training is best to have.
We look forward to providing what will hopefully be helpful recommendations.