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Armed security in churches - should churches prepare for possible terrorist incidents?

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:

http://www.christianemergencynetwork.org/news/al-qaeda-call-for-attacks-...

http://johngaltfla.com/wordpress/2012/02/05/how-iran-could-win-a-war-aga...

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:

http://www.wnd.com/2011/02/259301/

Some churches and congregations struggle with whether or not it’s biblical to have armed security in churches. Here’s an essay that in my opinion makes a strong biblical case for doing so:

http://armedcitizensnetwork.org/the-bible-and-self-defense

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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.