Saturday marks the six month anniversary of the massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. As the case with the Charleston shooting was, the same predictable responses ensued afterwards. The press tirelessly inundated the viewers with experts from multiple perspectives on ways to prevent similar events, identified personality traits of potential future shooters, and presented the response from gun control advocates. These same experts will continue to be called upon to render their views for other mass shootings regardless of the soft target venue that was attacked.
With respect to churches, there is a predictable response on behalf of churches, associations, conferences, dioceses or other organizational structures. Churches understandably reach out to law enforcement to suggest remedies to prevent occurrence of similar events on their campus. Church associations will hold seminars to reach a larger body of interested parties, and some entities will create webinars to achieve the same goal. For a period of time, you may notice a more visible presence of law enforcement at Sunday worship services and more greeters than usual on the exterior of the sanctuary prior to worship service. Your church may have initiated “security or response” initiatives in light of those two events. These efforts are certainly commendable. Unfortunately, when another Sutherland or Charleston style event doesn’t occur for a few months, the focus and enthusiasm for securing our Houses of Worship (HOW)drops. It’s kind of like praying fervently during difficult times but letting it slide during the good times. Let’s be honest, the sense of urgency since November 5th has all but evaporated.
Churches, as a whole, have made tremendous progress in addressing potential risks and creating workable solutions to their environment since the Charleston and Texas shootings. Our society has become more attentive when frequenting soft targets such as outdoor events, gatherings of large crowds and walking down a sidewalk. Having a plan for a sudden exit in a restaurant, movie theater, sporting event or when traveling abroad is being openly discussed when heading out as a group or a family outing.
Even with the progress, churches still face obstacles that extend the time needed to properly assess threats, formulate response teams, and provide a safer environment for its members, guests, staff and vendors. A dominant hurdle a church may encounter is in the creation and administration for a response team is the “guns” issue. The manner in which state laws are written is a major hurdle in the formation of trained response teams. For example, in Georgia, the governing church body has the authority to allow or prevent guns from being brought into a church by law abiding and permitted gun owners; however, if the church wants to limit the carry of guns to only members of a response team, they are prevented by law from doing so. The problem with this law is that during an active shooter scenario, a well intended law abiding and permitted gun carrying citizen may create chaos if not a party to the church’s response team planning. This style law is not unusual in other states and is delaying implementation of formation of response teams. Several states have recently revised existing statutes and/or new laws being signed.
Due to financial restraints, response teams are typically staffed by volunteers, and this also creates delays in creation of response teams as well as administration. It requires an extremely dedicated and motivated effort to maintain consistency and precision day in and day out for a model response team environment. The likelihood of facing an active shooter is very low as opposed to dealing with other issues such as medical related and behavioral, however if an armed response team has been deemed as a high priority risk mitigation tool in a HOW, the members must maintain their skill sets with the highest standards for training.
Additionally, insurance providers are understandably becoming more risk averse and are beginning to require more in-depth written policies, plans and training by churches in order to purchase workplace violence and active shooter riders to existing commercial policies. There are murmurs of more restrictive insurance requirements as negative trends continue. Expect litigation to increase as well.
There are other factors (excuses) as well. These include internal politics, normal resistance to change, cavalier attitudes like “we’ve got this under control” or “it will never happen here”. Some of the churches we have worked with want to skip a Comprehensive Threat Assessment (CTA) and move immediately toward creation of an armed response team. Although a CTA is not a prerequisite for other response team activities, it serves as the foundation to establish short to long term priorities based on a hierarchy identified as the most pressing risk factors. The independence of a third party eliminates prejudices and internal politics in play in any environment. A CTA uncovers the most likely threats in a church’s vicinity and identifies recommended solutions to mitigate.
Six months after Sutherland, the majority of churches have increased awareness or made some attempt to establish plans and procedures. However, the timetable to provide a safer environment is more likely on a long term trajectory using internal (volunteer) resources with the assistance of local law enforcement. Firms such as ours, Counter Threat Group, LLC., can usually reduce that timetable to six months or less from the time a CTA is completed, risk areas identified and prioritized, to the time a plan to remedy is established. In conversations with church pastors, risk managers, and response team leaders, we find that, creating response plans to active shooter situations and basic safety preparedness causes the greatest delays in executing a fully integrated response plan.
Each church must make a carefully calculated and complex risk decision in the route they will take to achieve a safer environment balanced with the desire to be welcoming to its members and visitors. However, as we often state, ” Control what you can control”. All churches have a finite set of financial and human resources, but in all cases, they must establish the necessary deterrents to suit their individual dynamic environments in a timely manner.
Photo Credit:North American Mission Board/Andrew Pearle