Firearms are a necessary tool in our security toolkit today. They contribute to our preparedness, life safety, and loss prevention just as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, medical kits and defibrillators, seat belts, and the ice melt you put on the front steps of your church do. While we examine the role that firearms play, we must keep a broad view of our community, our country, and our world and maintain a keen awareness of today’s bigger picture. We live in an organized culture where many are attempting to instill fear and establish dominance and control through disinformation as well as violence. This is a subject for another discussion, but we must remain vigilant and aware of how fear is being proliferated, who is doing it, and why they are doing it. It is important that we properly address fear and keep it in perspective as we make choices and decisions for our places of worship. For example, we have learned that posting a church as a “gun-free zone” is not a deterrent. Doing this is nothing more than making an advertisement and invitation to be the first church in your community to host an armed attack!
Guns or No Guns – Making the Right Decision
This is a discussion your church family must have based upon your values, beliefs, and factual information. Pray about it. The decision must be made from within your organization after cool reflection considering empirical evidence, factual information, and statistics that are readily available. Source examples include studies from the United States Secret Service – National Threat Assessment Center “Mass Attacks in Public Spaces”, third-party sources such as “How Frequently Do Church Shootings Occur”, research from the Faith-Based Security Network, and of course church security and training seminars and publications by Strategos International like the book “Active Threat: Workplace 911” by Vaughn Baker and Mark Warren.
Anecdotes and emotion should never be the foundation for decision-making, and no one should tell you what to do. Anyone who acts as a host for where people gather has a general responsibility for the safety and welfare of those who gather at/in their venue. This includes the suitability of the structure itself according to the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code, environmental and exterior issues such as parking, lighting, and ice on walkways, and other hazards or concerns which have been identified and specifically brought to an organization’s attention. This includes “active threats” such as those who come to your venue with the intent of harming others and who have the means to carry out the act.
Forming Your Ministry – The Right People for the Job
Forming your Life Safety Ministry should focus upon personnel selection above all other things – DO THIS FIRST! Identifying those who have a warrior’s mindset, a servant’s heart, and a willingness to submit to authority will determine your team ministry’s success or failure. With this in mind, here are some suggested components of the process:
- Communicate with your insurance carrier that you wish to form a team. Find out what their parameters and needs are. Your carrier should be your advocate and an asset, not your adversary. Don’t approach this as “beg forgiveness afterward” rather than “ask permission in advance.” Your insurance carrier is in the same business that you are…preventing loss! They may even have resources to share with you such as Brotherhood Mutual’s Church Safety & Security Guidebook.
- Propose the need to form the Life Safety Ministry (in writing) to your leadership. Treat this ministry professionally, not as a group of “good ‘ol boys”.
- Create a mission statement, purpose, goals, and objectives. This is a simple statement that may be included in the proposal. This is not a P&P manual or operating guidelines; that comes later. Our core mission is to create disciples for Jesus and to do so with love in a secure environment of Christian dignity and respect.
- Author a job description, what are the roles & responsibilities of the protector? Even though this is likely a volunteer position, treat it professionally. This includes what training will need to be completed before the member can perform certain duties on your team. This also outlines the expectations of service, training, behavior, and potential time commitments.
- Perform background checks, criminal history, and references of applicants just as we do before we allow volunteers to work in our children’s ministries.
- Formally interview the applicants, make your selections. Have a list of standard questions and a few “what if” scenarios to ask them. Also, have someone who is familiar with how to professionally interview candidates talk to your interview board about what can and cannot be asked in an interview; what is appropriate and how to behave. Present yourselves professionally!
- Acknowledge the team members in writing. Welcome them to the team and tell them what the rules are. Even with armed teams, I suggest a probationary period where the new member shadows a veteran, and that new team member is not initially armed. The welcome letter explains their parameters while on probation.
- Create an annual training calendar. I will speak more about this in the next section.
Training Protectors – The Right Knowledge and Information for the Job
Your training and qualification process must be valid, relevant, and documented. There are multiple court case precedents that address armed protectors. You do not have to reinvent the wheel, and it is best not to try and do this alone. Professional and experienced trainers including police instructors and the trainers of first responders are a great asset here and you may have them in your church family. This is also a place where Strategos International can really help. Examples of case precedents that should be addressed with your training program include:
- How inadequate training is the same as completely failing to train;
- What does the “reasonableness doctrine” according to the U.S. Supreme Court mean in relation to the lawful use of force;
- How the training you design and deliver must be “adequate to the task”;
- When and how “deliberate indifference” relates to training, and what specifically constitutes adequate/inadequate training;
- Why firearms training must meet multiple criteria in order to be considered valid;
- Why every use of force upon another human being is considered a 4th Amendment issue;
- How specifically do your state statutes enumerate the lawful use of force? What are the specific criteria that must be in place in order for your use of force to be considered “lawful?”
Create a list of training topics in advance and lay out your year of training. Cover a wide array of topics that include many issues related to life safety: first aid and CPR including scenarios, interpersonal communication and communication obstacles, situational awareness and how to assess that which JDLR – “just doesn’t look right”, empty hand compliance and control, dealing with death and crisis events, fire safety and extinguisher use, firearms and qualification (pistol and rifle), how to comfortably and securely carry a firearm and other tools in close proximity of others, severe weather preparation and response, executive protection/protecting the pulpit, escorting the offering, pepper spray, and taser, training all members of your church family how to prepare for contingencies at home, and more! Note that it is absolutely important to vet and validate anyone who instructs, qualifies, or teaches your life safety ministry team as the members you choose to be a part of your team. It is not necessary to have a degree to teach specific skills, and there is a simple process for selecting and documenting someone as a “subject matter expert” that agencies and courts recognize.
Equipment Selection and Training – The Right Tools to Get the Job Done Right
Whether you issue equipment or allow your members to provide their own equipment, there must be parameters for what equipment can or should be used. Specifically, this needs to address which pistols, holsters, and ammunition may be carried while on duty as a protector.
Service Pistols. The pistol should be full-size or compact, but NOT a subcompact “pocket pistol.” A good guide is that if you cannot get a complete grip with all of your fingers making complete contact on the grip of the handgun, it is too small! There is additional and inherent danger in a too-small pistol in the hands of a person who is under duress and not extremely well-trained. Over the years we have seen many people inadvertently get their fingers in front of the muzzle of a pocket-sized pistol without knowing it. Changing hands, reloading, clearing stoppages or malfunctions, or working with a flashlight becomes more dangerous when the operator cannot gain or maintain a complete grip. Folks with good intentions purchase (or are given by family members) small guns only to discover they are a dangerous handicap when they come to train. The key concept here is “duty firearm.” An on-duty protector is just like a police officer. How many police officers do you see carrying subcompact pocket pistols while on duty, even if they are in plain clothes?
Cartridge and Caliber. Stay with the major calibers known for police duty use. Nothing smaller than 9-millimeter. While the .380 cartridge is close to the performance of 9 mm rounds, most of the pistols that are chambered for .380 are too small to be used as a designated protector’s tool. Ammunition should be commercially produced factory ammunition for life-safety (police) duty applications. There are many available; consider mirroring what your local agencies use. Doing this generally addresses the concerns of over-penetration, and research information is easy to obtain.
Proper Holster. Whether you choose to wear on-the-belt (OWB) or inside the waistband (IWB) is mostly a personal preference. The holster should not move, it should be discreet, it should be reasonably comfortable to wear, and it must NOT collapse or pancake on itself when the pistol is drawn from it. All-nylon and some leather models are notorious for this and must not be used. About 25% of all accidental self-inflicted gunshot wounds occur from coming out of or going back into the holster. Being able to recover to the holster without pointing the muzzle at your own body at any time is paramount. Drawing from and recovering to the holster is a skill we pay great attention to in our training programs.
The importance of planning ahead and doing your research cannot be overstated. Your life safety ministry is much more than a “gun team” and you should set yourselves up and behave well so that you are seen in a positive and welcoming light. As I say often and always, “It’s not all about the guns!” The guns are simply a tool that we train to be proficient and surgically precise with and pray we never have to draw from our holster.
Stay safe, follow Jesus, and model the right example for others to see!
Manager / Senior Firearms Instructor
Todd Burke has served for 35-years as a police officer, firefighter, and paramedic in both career and volunteer capacities as a line officer, supervisor, and chief officer. He holds a wide variety of certifications and instructor’s credentials, he is a Certified Police Specialist and Generalist Instructor with the Missouri Department of Public Safety, he has had numerous articles published in professional journals, and he has offered expert witness testimony in high-profile felony and capital crime prosecutions. Todd helps organizations and individuals realize their training needs and objectives and then exceed those requirements with a cadre of talented and experienced staff.