10 Things – Firearms in the Church

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Sheepdog-Iconography---Safety-TeamAs I work through church safety team issues, I would be remiss if I did not cover what is probably the one of the most contentious topics for church safety and security – firearms in church. If you have read any of my online posts, you will easily come to the conclusion that I support the arming of church safety personnel. I actually believe that churches should, if legal, allow anyone who legally can carry a firearm concealed. While this is not often the case, I am in favor of arming church safety personnel, and then equipping them with the best training. Why?

On December 9, 2007, a gunman opened fire in a dormitory complex for Youth With A Mission – a youth missionary training facility in Arvada, CO – killing two and wounding two. Later that day, that same gunman opened fire at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, killing two more and wounding three more. At the New Life Church, the only thing that stopped the killer was a volunteer. That volunteer had heard about the earlier murders, and had volunteered, along with others, to stay at the church as a “volunteer security”.

What was different about that volunteer? She was licensed to carry a concealed pistol by the state of Colorado, and had permission from the church leadership to carry in the church. She was able to employ her firearm, and stop the killer before he could wound or kill anyone else.

In 2007, there were several church mass killings, including the New Life Church and Youth With A Mission murders. The difference between the other church attacks and the New Life Church killings is that there was a citizen who was able to respond even before the police were able to be there. It has been said that the brave citizen saved countless other lives that day by stopping the criminal.

The 2007 incidents are a microcosm of some very disturbing, and frightening statistics. Compiled by Carl Chinn, a church security consultant, statistics from 1/1/1999 thru 3/12/2013 show very disturbing trends:

  • There have been 649 deadly attacks on faith-based organizations since 1999, with 783 victims, claiming 339 innocent lives.
  • 2007 had 41 attacks, 39 deaths (including the aggressors)
  • 2008 had 64 attacks, 50 deaths (including the aggressors)
  • 2009 had 108 attacks, 54 deaths (including the aggressors)
  • 2010 had 102 attacks, 52 deaths (including the aggressors)
  • 2011 had 107 attacks, 48 deaths (including the aggressors)
  • 2012 had 135 attacks, 75 deaths (including the aggressors)

Every time that the killer has been stopped short of a larger massacre, it has been a volunteer at the church that has done so. Like the volunteer in Colorado, some have been armed, and have been able to stop the would-be killer, while others have been forced to sacrifice their safety, and sometimes their lives, to stop evil. One unarmed usher who stopped a killer after he had killed the senior pastor, was shot and injured himself because he was forced to get close to the deranged murderer. In interviews later, he stated that there was no one who was armed to intervene, and this was because the church is located in Illinois, which does not offer ANY type of concealed weapons permitting system.

Other than the occasional off-duty officer, law enforcement officers have largely not been involved in stopping these killers until the rage has run its course. Through no fault of their own, they simply cannot respond fast enough, and it is simply the speed and short duration of such incidents that cause the first responding officers to take more of a clean-up role than they would prefer. Most of these incidents are over within one or two minutes, and it takes longer for police officers to fully respond. Of the police officers and tactical (SWAT) officers that I have personally talked to, the vast majority, with very few exceptions, praise the fact that there are armed and trained personnel currently on campus to intervene until the police can show up.

In the state of Michigan, anyone who wishes to legally carry a concealed firearm in a church must have explicit permission from the presiding officials (typically the senior pastor or board). While I cannot officially confirm or deny the presence of any such personnel at the church, if we did have such a “Special Safety Team”, they would have to have the maturity, temperament, training, and qualifications to carry a concealed firearm on campus. Those few would have to be very carefully selected, and each one would have to be trusted enough to be recommended by myself to the Senior Pastor and the Executive Pastor for final approval before being authorized to carry a firearm while on duty for the safety team. If we had such a team, we would then offer as much training as possible to maintain the ability and maturity to respond correctly.

There are several large churches in the area do have armed personnel. Unfortunately, there are other large churches in the area that choose not to let any of their personnel carry a firearm on campus. In fact, I know of one large local church that specifically forbids their safety team from carrying any firearms on campus. Due to their location, the church has had several incidents of violence that have started off campus and spilled over onto the church property. This same church has had several credible threats against their senior pastor, including death threats. In response, the facilities manager has assigned a couple of his safety team members to escort the pastor to and from his car every Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, these brave men and women are unarmed. This cruelly turns them into mere cannon fodder if there ever is an attack on the senior pastor, and they will be forced to choose to throw their lives away, or to run away, leaving their pastor alone.

The issue of firearms in church is as divided among churches, as it is among the nation. Typically, those who do not want guns in public places, do not want guns in churches. On the flip side, those who have no objection to guns in general, typically have no objection to those who would carry while in church. Firearms are a polarizing subject in any polite company, and the church is no exception. In fact, I would say that the church is even more sharply divided. Whatever your personal opinion is, this is an issue that can cause severe divisions, even among church boards and staff.

So what is the “correct” choice? While I believe that a church safety team should have mature, trained members who do carry a firearm, each church must decide what policies would suit their unique culture. This is not a decision that should be made lightly. Instead, the leadership must prayerfully, carefully consider the options before them. While considering the matter, there are several questions that must be answered.

  1. Is it legal for non-law enforcement personnel to carry a concealed firearm in a church, or on church property? If it is not legal for personnel to carry a concealed firearm, then this option is automatically discarded.
  2. Are there any law enforcement personnel who can, and do, carry a firearm in your church already? Law enforcement officers, can be a great asset to any safety team, if they are called and asked. If there are such officers, enlist their help with the safety team, as well as the training for any of the “special team”. If you do not have any officers in your church, ask around and begin making contacts with the local department.
  3. Are there any mature, trained, and motivated individuals that might be able to step up into such a role? They need to be heavily screened and have the best personality for the various personalities and situations that the team will encounter. If you do not fit this description, you will need to find a mature, capable person who does fit the description to become the leader of this team, working with you directly to lead the team.
  4. If all of the prior questions are answered, then the final question must be asked: does the executive pastoral staff and the church board not only approve of members being allowed to cary a firearm, but do they fully support the option? If the staff and board are not fully behind the idea, your team may run into unnecessary difficulties, or even a loss of support, while your ministry works. Whatever the choice, it must be with the full support of the staff and board.

If you have determined that you will have at least some members of the team armed, what should you look for in a person who will carry a firearm to protect the church? While it should not have to be said, they must be legally able to carry a firearm in church. Next, they must have a real maturity to them. This person will represent you and the church, and possibly do so with a firearm. If they are not mature enough to make the right decisions, they may do more harm than good in a violent attack.

In my opinion, they should also be someone who carries a firearm everyday already. Whether a law enforcement officer, or simply a citizen who routinely legally carries a firearm all day, the person must be comfortable enough with carrying a firearm. While I have been approached at times by one or two of my team to be considered for our Special Safety Team, my questioning eventually leads to their carry habits. Do they carry a firearm every day? How do they carry it – concealed or open? Where do they carry it? What do they carry? How much do they practice? How do they practice? By answering all of these questions, I can get a feel for their habits, capabilities, attitudes and desires. I can then determine if this person will be a fit.

They must have the desire and attitude to learn with training. Training is very important, training of all types, as we discussed in the prior chapter. If they are not willing to learn and take the job seriously, then they will not be prepared if and when something happens. If they are not prepared, they can, and probably will, make the situation worse. While I believe that there should be armed members of any church safety team, I also advocate that these folks must be absolutely the best people on the team. Attitude, maturity, desire, and the heart of a servant must be present before someone represents Christ, your church, and you while armed at your house of worship.

It is unfortunate that we have to consider the threat of violence against the church, but it is a reality in this current day and age in America. It is experience and research that indicates that the only way to stop a violent rampage in a traditionally “safe” place is to meet that force with like force BEFORE and UNTIL the police are able to arrive. We have worked with the Kent County Tactical Team (SWAT) and the Lieutenants in charge of the team all heavily approved of having armed “civilians” on campus to engage and distract or stop threats if they happen, until the police can show up. With the right personalities, training and oversight, the Special Safety Team is a valuable part of the overall mission to keep the church safe for those who wish to encounter God.

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