Monday, February 27

Guns!? In a Church? - Think About It Series

Note: This is installment #1 of a series of posts. Carl is writing from the perspective of a midsize to larger church. I encourage you to go to Carl's website and read about his story. Carl was involved with the Focus on the Family hostage situation in the 1990's and then most recently as a member of the security team at New Life Church in Colorado during the shooting at their church. As Carl likes to put it... "Lighting never strikes twice in the same spot, but you can be in two different places that lighting will strike" (I quoted that to the best of my memory)

Guns!? In a Church?
The debate over firearms in our country exists even within firearm owner circles. Some feel guns should not be allowed on a church security team at all, some feel it is fine to know they are in the audience and will be used if needed, and some feel only law enforcement trained individuals should carry in a church environment. I disagree with all those extremes.
When a ministry allows agents of protection to carry firearms, they are essentially making a statement that, “We are here for the hurting. But if we cannot help them and they become a threat, we are authorizing you to intervene with appropriate means up to and including the use of deadly force if needed.”
As harsh as this may sound, I agree with such a stand. But there are absolute pre-requisites in my opinion. Guns should be allowed on qualified members of a team only as long as;
1.      It is within a legal jurisdiction.
2.      The ministry leadership endorses it.
3.      There is a carefully planned training and qualifications program. It doesn’t have to be an expensive or even cost centered course – but if team members are armed, they should be practicing together and evaluating the environment together.
4.      It has been confirmed with the church insurance underwriter
5.      I urge every church to get an attorney to serve (as a team volunteer if possible) on security plan development. If the church has no attorney, this issue of armed defenders is too important to trust to chance. If you have an incident, you will be forced to have an attorney. That shouldn’t be the first time you meet – present this article to him or her for discussion as you develop your own policies.
Protection is needed in our houses of worship, and there are many cases where a firearm is the only protection capable of stopping an assault. In those cases, more people will die if the assault is not stopped.
The firearms debate may rage if your community discovers you use armed defenders in your ministry. Be certain you are ready to address a news conference if you make that decision. Ministries are responsible for the actions of their appointed representatives.
Use caution with ministry security team participation by any who are dogmatic about gun rights, martial arts, or similar issues. When it comes to determining the appropriate use of force in response to incidents, you do not want anyone with dogmas that could cloud their judgment. In addition to the obvious concerns regarding excessive force injury, there are other consequences.
If an incident occurs at a ministry where an appointed security individual was instrumental in mitigating a threat by using force, count on extreme scrutiny from media, attorneys for the offender, the general public and potentially even from the congregation. Whether it was justified or not, doesn’t change the fact that public examination can be expected following significant use of force. Segments of any size of community oppose firearms, any form of protective action and / or detest faith-based ministries. And there is a host of antagonists beyond your community ready to jump all over it if they can. Such folks may cause as much trouble as possible; with all the media momentum they can muster to discredit the ministry after such an incident. For the same reasons law enforcement agencies steer away from radical employees, so should ministries.
For example, let’s say a person is outspoken on the right to defend ourselves with firearms and has been active and zealous in 2nd amendment rights protection. Perhaps they have written letters to the local editor, staged protests against gun restriction legislation, or in similar ways expressed bold passion in support of such issues.
Such zeal is sufficient cause for pause in considering them to represent a ministry in protective actions. They have left a trail of published and / or witnessed fuel for litigation. If an attack was stopped with the use of deadly force by the character referred to in this example, the liability risk for the ministry is exponentially higher.
Of course armed defenders with military, law enforcement or security credentialed experience are excellent considerations for the carrying members of a security team. Be careful however of considering only people from these backgrounds. Conversations about credentials are often driven by pride, competition or exclusivity. If there are those who feel called to serve in this capacity, don’t rule them out just because of a lack of related employment history or credentials. While they should meet moral qualifications and exhibit relative aptitude, the best team members may have never operated in an official security or uniformed protection capacity before.
It is wrong for uniformed professionals to advocate they are the only ones qualified to carry a firearm for protection of others. It is true that some can be entrusted with carrying a firearm in a protective manner, while others cannot. However, many of those ready to become trained defenders have no law enforcement credentials. While it is often best to draw from credentialed pools for armed defenders, remember that decisions of whether to call the qualified or qualify the called are over our pay-scale.
There is a grey line of distinction between an intentional team and CCW members in the congregation. CCW members that are not part of an intentional team are a reality for any team to be aware of – they are out there. In some states the conceal carry laws exclude the ability to carry a firearm in a place of worship. In states where it is legal (and realistically even in those where it isn’t) the truth of the matter is that there will always be a certain number of congregants in the audience who will be carrying deadly force. To just know that and quietly rely on them to “spring to action if needed” is as reckless as burying our head in the sand denying that they are in our congregation.
I am certainly not opposed to the freedom to carry. I am against posting signs declaring a gun-free zone. If anyone obeys it, it sure won’t be the bad guys with guns. But good guys with guns are a reality every team needs to be aware of. There is a sliding scale of realism to understand with this subject which is directly related to the size of church. In a church of 20 congregants, those CCW members may be “the team”. If so they know each other and should train together. If the church has 20,000 in the worship service with an intentional team that has trained together there may be some unknown CCW holders eager to get involved if a scenario goes down.
It is best to have a designated team authorized and trained to be armed defenders if your laws allow such. When the aggressor comes to your organization, those trained individuals will manage the attack until they can effectively transition the incident to responding law enforcement agencies. If you don’t have the trained and equipped members, you may have off-duty plain-clothes officers who do not know each other, mixed with untrained defenders, all shooting at bad people, each other, and innocent bystanders with panicking crowds diving to avoid the skirmish. And the reality remains, that even with trained operators some of those people may come into the mix. Talk about how your team might handle that scenario.
In a live fire situation, there is plenty of confusion to go around even among team members who know each other and have trained together. I don’t care if the crowd is 20 or 20,000, there will be some measure of chaos. I have been a hunter all my life -- I don’t even hunt with people whom I know little about – I hunt with people I trust around a firearm. It is that much more important to have a team who has trained together be responsible when an incident is occurring. Untrained zealots or unknown and non-uniformed professionals joining the mix is more likely to happen the larger the church. But as much as is realistic, your congregation should know that there is a designated and specific team of defenders should an incident occur.
In just about every major shooting, the possibility of multiple shooters must quickly be considered. At the shooting at New Life Church in 2007, the report of a second shooter was developing even as the shooter was entering the building.
Within seconds of hearing that there may be a second shooter, and while taking a position of readiness for the gun battle, I had a total stranger show up behind me yelling in anger. After quickly checking his hands for a weapon (due to the second shooter alert), I told him he needed to get behind me and out of the building. I simply had to make a judgment call he was not the second shooter quickly based upon his demeanor and apparent lack of a weapon.
I use my experience to emphasize the value of having trained armed defenders who know each other and are working as a team, but being ready for those who throw themselves into the mix. Had New Life not had a functioning team that day, the responses to the gunman would have been left to a loose knit group of responders who could have potentially increased injury as they were dealing with the threat. I had a front row seat to the chaos potential.
I hope your authorized armed defenders will never need to reveal their firearm. It is truly the very last option, and even if drawn it should be their primary hope that they can hold the aggressor at bay until law enforcement arrives, guide those tactical first responders into effective positions, and quickly turn the situation over to them. However, if the speed of the attack is moving too fast to allow for any of this, there may only be one realistic way to resolve it – and the bigger the caliber the better (another front row seat observation I had on the day of our shooting).
Think About It…
Ø  Tunnel vision works for both victims and attackers. If an active shooter comes into your crowd, and sees you coming towards him with a firearm as other innocent people are fleeing, you have captured his attention and aim. That is the first moment of intervention and protection, even if there is no shooting at that moment.

Ø  Protection of the offering (theft) is not an appropriate use of deadly force. Make sure any on the team who carry understand use of force is only applied when loss of life of others appears certain.

Ø  Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (the Columbine School shooters) intentionally used solid jacketed bullets for maximum carnage. They purposely wanted each bullet to continue as far as it could inflicting a far reaching field of injury. One of the trainings your team should do is that of discussing bullet types to carry. Maximum stopping power with minimum ricochet and wall penetration (exactly the opposite of the Harris / Klebold model) should be a priority.

Ø  Drill on recognizing elements of the deadly triangle (opportunity, intention, and capacity) as team preparation for using deadly force. In order to be considered as a justifiable evaluation that loss of innocent life is certain, the attacker must clearly exhibit the opportunity, intention and capacity (all at once) to kill victims. Drill on active scenarios of 2 but not all 3 elements.

Ø  Consider Verbal Judo, other official de-escalation techniques and non-lethal weapons as a higher training priority than firearms training. Ask your local law enforcement where such training is available in your area. Find free web-based options to conduct your own training. Some violent crimes can be avoided with such tactics, others cannot. If an incident goes down, you want to exhibit that you have emphasized less than lethal response training, leaving deadly force intervention as a last resort.

Ø  You need to be certain of your own rules of engagement, preferably detailed in a clearly understood response continuum. If a situation goes down, whoever used a firearm to stop the attack will be whisked away by investigators soon after (if they are still alive). Count on them being grilled on the rules – they better know them off the top of their head. They won’t get time for a refresher course on the way to the station. Include that potential ride and interview as part of your team training. How much is your defender going to hold to the “I can’t speak until my attorney is present” model? It is a good model, as long as it is within reason. To clam up and not say anything if there are still active bad guys on the scene would be irresponsible. Be reasonable with sharing known information that could benefit the safety of responding officers or congregants still in harm’s way. Aside from that, get that attorney who helps your team in there with you.

Ø  Like federal agents or plain-clothes officers, church security operators rarely wear uniforms. So like those plain-clothes first responders, they need some kind of identification that can be quickly deployed when a peaceful environment deteriorates rapidly into a violent crime scene. Please consider having all of your weapons-toting security operators carry a safety banner that can be deployed as an incident is going down, or immediately after (when most “blue on blue shootings” happen). Based on some hairy momentsafter our shooting experience, I now do not carry a weapon unless I have my DSM (“Don’t Shoot Me”) banner on my hip. Designed by a veteran SWAT officer, check them out at

Ø  Of over 336,000 congregations in the U.S., nearly 60% of them have fewer than 99 people in their membership. The vast majority of these do not have the budget to hire extra-duty officers, nor are there any law-enforcement members in their pews on any given Sunday. Even if there are, many law enforcement agencies forbid off-duty officers from volunteering in security roles. There is nothing wrong with having non-law enforcement trained and ready to protect and allowing them to be ready with the proper tools. The smaller the church, the easier the training can be, but there must be some level of training if you are serious about protection.

Ø  Any business gears up with the proper amounts of staff at busier times. Movie theaters have more staff on hand on Friday and Saturday evening than any other time of the week. Electric utilities have more people in the middle of a hot day, and law enforcement has more officers on duty on Friday and Saturday night than any other time. Agencies typically have fewer officers on duty on Sunday morning than any other time of the week. So if you choose to “just let law enforcement deal with any threats”, your standard wait of 8 minutes might be longer if the wolf comes on Sunday morning.

Ø  There are some states now extending the “make my day law” beyond the home to commercial environments and even churches. The latest of these is Oklahoma who in recent days assigned House Bill 2988 to the House Judiciary Committee. It is well on the way to becoming a law which will expand the legal authority of churches to protect themselves in violent situations.

Ø  In states where it is not legal for citizens to carry a firearm in church, there are often laws allowing properly qualified security professionals to do so. TheChristian Security Institute is a good option for training volunteers to become state level certified armed defenders in states where such certification is needed. Contact them at (972) 712-8818 to see if they offer training in your state. Even if your state doesn’t require licensed armed defenders, it is good due diligence to bring these professionals in to train your team if your church can budget for it.


  1. Carl, thank you for your thoughtful, informative article. I have one point I'd like to ask you to clarify.

    Can you more clearly define what you mean by someone who is "dogmatic" or a "zealot"? Does current or past law enforcement experience override the concern about the paper trail? Is this intended to mean that anyone who has ever written a letter to the editor should be excluded, or is there some wiggle room for exceptions?


    Gary Martin

  2. Gary,

    Thank you for your kind words and for your different points of view in your article. We don’t have to agree 100% to be on the same team.

    The first step in any security plan is to have good spiritual foundations. As Bob Perkins pointed out in his article, my favorite scriptures on this subject are out of Nehemiah. My e-mail signature line since 2005 has ended with Neh. 4:9, "we prayed to our God and posted a guard..."

    I answer you in this way because it isn't that simple to determine who is, or is not a danger by their over-eagerness. If I were to attempt a formula, it would judge out many shouldn’t be. Pray first, and make those difficult decisions from your knees in humility.

    A criminal doesn’t think things clear through – protectors must think things all the way through. We must, as Steven Covey said, “Begin with the end in mind”.