Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In Wake of Charleston Shootings, Should Places of Worship Get Guns?

While most of North America is expressing admiration for the way family and friends of those killed in Charleston, South Carolina are responding with forgiveness to murderer Dylann Roof, others are using the situation to help pastors and other church members use guns to defend themselves. This isn’t the first time that has happened, as I wrote about in 2007 about the shootings at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. It also raises the question of how places of worship should prepare for emergencies.

I wasn’t shocked to learn about the church shooting at New Life Church in Colorado Springs in October. Guns are so ubiquitous in that country, and shootings in public places so common, that it hardly seems unusual any more—even in a church.

I was surprised, however, to learn that New Life Church utilizes between 15-20 security guards, some of whom are armed, to patrol the premises during its services.

Jeanne Assam, the security guard who killed the gunman, was stationed in the church's central rotunda as part its overall evacuation and defence plan.

Assam, who once worked as a police officer, attends one of the morning services and then volunteers as a guard during the other service.

“That's the reality of our world," said New Life pastor Brady Boyd about the church’s security system, which includes an evacuation plan to hustle worshippers into secure areas in case of emergencies.

“I don't think any of us grew up in churches where that was the reality, but today it is.”

New Life is not exceptional. It is becoming more common for U.S. churches to have guards and security plans. It’s particularly true for mega churches, which can attract thousands of people to worship services—and where weekly offerings can reach as much as $100,000.

Concern for security in places of worship has spawned an industry devoted to helping protect churches and other places of worship.

One such business was Church Security Services. Now apparently out of business (as of November, 2017), its website listed recent crimes in churches—an assault on a woman in Florida, shootings in Louisiana and Missouri, robberies in Maryland and New York.

It asks: “Does this seem like a safe place to have your family?”

“Churches are really easy pickings if you think about it,” says Dale Annis, who directed the company. “You've got several hundred people, all in one place with their heads down and their eyes closed. I tell my security team to pray with their eyes open.”

Concern about security is probably not at the top of the list for most Canadian churches—most Christians are more worried about how to get more people in than ways to screen visitors in order to keep some out.

But Jews and Muslims have had to pay attention to this issue for a long time.

After 9/11, many mosques stepped up security; the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) offers a Muslim Community Safety Kit on its web site that suggests, among other things, installing alarms, cutting down high vegetation around the building, installing exterior lighting and creating a security committee.

Many synagogues have also developed procedures to handle things like telephone threats, hate mail and potential letter and parcel bombs.

Although churches in Canada will likely never face the kind of violence that is so prevalent in the U.S., it’s still appropriate to prepare for worst-case scenarios by having evacuation plans in case of fire or storms, or plans to respond to unruly or violent visitors.

"No one enjoys talking about safety and security issues, particularly in the church,” says Jeff Hanna, a former detective, pastor and author of Safe and Secure: The Alban Guide to Protecting Your Congregation.

"But we are called to be good stewards. That includes protecting our buildings, assets, and most importantly, people."

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