Wednesday, February 29

Armed Security in Churches

Note: The below article is written by one of my readers. Gary is a former LEO and is writing primarly from the background of small churches under 100 attendees. Gary illustrates many good points; however, is coming from a different prospective of some of my other contributors to this topic. What I think is important is that we hear the prospective of multiple qualified individuals prior to trying to decide what is best for your congregation. Please feel free to comment. Gary is more than willing to engage in conversation on these issues. 

Armed Security in Churches
By: Gary Martin

The recent accidental shooting and killing of a Florida pastor’s daughter at church has once again ignited the debate about whether or not guns belong in churches.  As a former law enforcement officer, my unequivocal answer is “yes, they do”.  When rare incidents such as this accidental shooting occur, it is important that we as a society keep things in perspective.  In today’s world, it is prudent for churches to take effective steps to protect their congregations from potential violence.  Incidents like this should not be used as an excuse to strip us of our rights to do so.

Churches are “soft targets” and can sometimes be tempting ones, especially to terrorists.  They are not immune from having violent people coming into them and shooting at the congregation or pastor.  Churches have been attacked many times in other countries by terrorists, and there have been several non-terrorist attacks on congregations here in the US as well. There is also the possibility that terrorists are making plans to hit several churches on American soil at the same time in a terror version of “shock and awe”.  While such a massive attack may never materialize, it might be prudent to at least consider it as a possibility, and develop appropriate, effective responses to deal with that contingency should it occur. For more information on this threat, see these links:

Many security experts, legislators and forward thinking pastors are calling attention to this possibility and are encouraging churches to be prepared to defend themselves. Here’s one example:

The one thing all church security experts agree on is that for any kind of security preparations, layered defenses are best.  Those layers can involve untrained CCW permit holders up to and including professional active duty law enforcement officers.  Most experts whose opinions I’ve read say that it is appropriate to have armed security guards to help minimize the damage caused by an active shooter before police can arrive.  The hard reality is that a well armed active shooter can cause considerable carnage before the police show up, even with nothing more than a few semi-automatic handguns.

Churches that are designated gun free zones are at much higher risk of large scale loss of life than those that have the option of armed responders who can react immediately.  Where many experts drop the ball, in my opinion, is their insistence that only active duty law enforcement serve on church security teams.  Many churches don’t have active duty police officers in attendance, don’t have enough of them, or can’t afford to hire them.  Even then, there is precedence for uniformed police officers doing special duty and private uniformed guards being the first ones killed in an attack.  The best defense against an active shooter is to quickly meet the attack with a strong deadly force response.  If the suspect has many responders to deal with he may quickly be overcome by the sheer difficulty of trying to mentally manage a highly dynamic situation like that, and of having to dodge a hail of bullets coming back at him. 

Here are some resource pools where armed church security guards could be drawn from in a congregation. They are listed in order from minimum to maximum protection.

  1. Members of the congregation with no prior law enforcement or military training who have concealed carry permits. In order for this group to be even minimally effective, the church needs to avoid being a gun free zone.  The effectiveness of these volunteers can be greatly enhanced by having them attend formal training for church security. There are many organizations that offer it. In addition to them being more effective tactically with training, they will also be better at making good decisions.  Training may also help to mitigate insurance company concerns.  If however, a church is unwilling or unable to organize formal training due to budget constraints or other reasons, their CCW permit carriers should still be allowed to carry concealed so that they have at least some hope of stopping an active shooter and minimizing the loss of life before law enforcement can arrive several minutes later.  This can be especially important during those times where there may be higher risk of terror incidents against churches.  This may be the only option available to many small churches.
  1. Current or past members of the military.  Some of them may have training similar to what law enforcement officers have. And the ones who don’t may still be well prepared mentally and tactically to respond well during a real active shooter incident. Like the first group, they would also have CCW permits, but would have a higher level of training.  It is likely that churches of all sizes could have members of this group in them.
  1. Members of the congregation with past law enforcement experience.  While their training may not be as current as active duty officers, and they won’t have the same legal immunities or arrest powers as active duty officers do, they have received training on how to handle armed confrontations. They may also have real world experience doing it from when they were active duty.
  1. Plain clothed, active duty police officers.  For any incident that does not involved the brandishing of a weapon, or an active shooter, it is probably best for all other responders to call them from wherever they are in the church at the time, and wait for them to arrive to handle the situation. They are the best option because they have current training, arrest powers, the legal right to detain and question, and have certain legal immunities that no civilian has.  However, they need to be in sufficient numbers, and in locations within the church and parking lots where they can quickly respond.

What I’m proposing is a layered approach where as many of these resource pools that are available are involved in the security for the church.  Who responds first would depend on the threat level.  If it’s just a suspicious person who hasn’t yet reached the point of active shooting or brandishing a weapon, the most highly trained responders should handle it.  However, if there is a sudden outbreak of active shooting, that in my opinion is an “all hands on deck” situation. Whoever is closest should respond immediately, and others should back him/her up as quickly as possible.

One obvious concern with this approach, though, is whether or not CCW permit responders who are not part of the formal security team could get mistaken for one of the bad guys. In my opinion, while it is possible that that could happen, odds are it won’t in most cases. I can’t base that belief on hard empirical evidence, because there have been so few church shootings where a CCW permit holder was allowed to be armed and was able to stop an attack.  What it comes down to is a judgment call as to which is more important: stopping the attack as quickly as possible to save lives or risking a more chaotic situation where the CCW permit holder could be placing himself at risk by being mistaken as a bad guy.  In my personal opinion, the greater risk is to allow the perpetrator to keep shooting at innocent, unarmed people until the formal security team member(s) can arrive.  I am also theorizing that there are likely to be dynamics that can work in favor to lower the risk to the CCW responder:

1.     Witnesses who observed the initial exchange of fire might know who is who.  They may quickly jump to the verbal defense of the CCW permit holder. My expectation is that if they saw him being threatened by the security team or law enforcement officers, they would be almost hysterical in their efforts to protect the good guy by pointing out who he is to other responders.  Security team members and law enforcement officers need to PAY ATTENTION and LOOK for indications like that before just opening fire on someone. They should not be so concerned about their own safety that they’re willing to sacrifice an innocent person’s life by jumping to conclusions when people are screaming at them to not harm a legitimate responder.

2.     The CCW permit holder would probably have the common sense not to fire at the security team, or anyone else who wasn’t firing at him.  The bad guy is the one who keeps firing no matter what. The good guys are the ones he would see showing some restraint as they challenged him to put his weapon down.  If the threat was over with, he would most likely comply with the request without hesitation.

3.     The perpetrator’s behavior, clothing and/or what he is saying could easily tip off responders that he’s the bad guy.  Is he wearing a long trench coat during warm weather to conceal his guns?  Is he screaming “Allah is great” while he’s firing?  Is he shooting at women and children or firing randomly at anyone? Is he firing his gun in a direction where there are no armed responders firing back at him? In contrast, the true responder would ONLY be aiming his gun and/or firing at another armed person who has already fired shots at innocent people, or who was threatening to do so.

4.     If someone on the security team witnessed the initial exchange from a distance, he may already know who is who and can pass that information along to other responders by the most expedient means possible.

When I was an LEO, I received no training whatsoever as to how to distinguish the good guy from the bad guy in active shooting situations, even though I served in a state that had concealed carry laws for decades.  It was just left up to each individual officer to use his best judgment and common sense.  I think this needs to be addressed in the form of more formal training.  If there is someone who is reading this blog who can assemble a list of indicators that responders can look for to distinguish good guys from bad guys when they’re not wearing any clearly distinguishable markings, please ask Brian for permission to publish that list.  However, if possible I would prefer that it be based on empirical evidence, not just speculation as I have engaged in above.

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