Does Your Church Have a Threat Response Plan?


The following are some thoughts and observations based on suggestions we have received from a church member in Texas. Although the strategy is focused on preventing violence at churches, the material may also apply to other workplace settings, especially in situations where it becomes cost prohibitive to retain professional security officers.

The first consideration is to identify members of your organization that have experience as police officers. The rules of engagement are quite different for law enforcement than for military. Training can be acquired fairly quickly but good judgment comes with experience. Additionally, a little bit of legal knowledge about armed self-defense can go a long way- toward creating tragedy, legal liability and a bad image for your church or business.

The laws vary in every state. In the State of Washington, we are permitted to carry a weapon concealed (with a Concealed Pistol License- CPL) or openly in many situations. Some states have laws that restrict weapons in churches. Since Washington gun law treats a church like any other business, anyone that can legally carry on the street can carry in church. In fact, the owner and those authorized by the owners can carry in a church or business without CPL. Keep in mind, however, that if you are in a vehicle or off the premises you need a CPL unless you carry openly which we are only recommending for uniformed Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs).

A church has the same right and responsibility as any other private party to restrict what happens on its own premises but you do not want to deter visitors from coming onto your premises while appropriately armed. That visitor may save someone’s life. Criminals will not hesitate just because they see a sign that bans weapons on your premises.

Thus, a church or other organization has to take reasonable precautions to protect invitees that enter the premises. There is already some precedent for law suits proceeding against institutions like Virginia Tech. Pastors and elders also need to look at these issues from a spiritual standpoint. If you take your responsibility seriously, then you have to protect the flock that God has entrusted to your care.

More violent attacks against Christians and other religious minorities are foreseeable. Churches that take a Scriptural stand on the self-evident truths of Scripture – truths that have become so controversial to the crooked generation in which we live- are more likely to be attacked. The Lord Jesus articulated a self evident truth when he commanded his disciples to make it a priority to obtain a sword even if they sell their own clothing to purchase one.

Most churches have at least some active duty police officers. In Washington, police officers are permitted to work as armed security when they are not on regular duty. Keep in mind that in many of the mass shootings that have occurred, uniformed police officers have been targeted first. The presence of a uniformed officer is a good thing but there needs to be one or more armed individuals in plain clothes backing up the officer(s).

Security guards need to be licensed and properly supervised so do not take any steps indicating that any of your volunteers are security guards without undergoing the appropriate legal procedures. Nevertheless, we encourage you as a church to discuss appropriate threat responses and to create threat response plans with folks in your church that are called to protect the flock.

Remember, your team is made up of volunteers and should be moving around the church just like any other members unless they are ushers or greeters or have similar assignments. Armed volunteers should be going about their normal activities but in such a way that they are prepared to implement your church’s well planned response if a threat materializes.

Assigning specific individuals to guard or secure a particular area.

You may want to informally designate areas of responsibility for various volunteers. Working in pairs makes sense. If members are identified as security personnel and/or wear clothing that indicates certain members are official security personnel, you may be in violation of the law. Additionally, this creates more potential for liability if an incident occurs in which someone is injured by the commission of a negligent act or the failure to take appropriate action.

Wearing clothing that identifies members of the “security” team encourages church members to rely on the presence of armed security and makes those designated individuals into potential targets themselves. The first principle of self-defense is that each person has the primary obligation to protect himself or herself and loved ones from death or grave bodily harm.

Anyone that asks the question “when can I draw my weapon” is probably not ready for the responsibility. Each person that is armed needs to have requisite training, knowledge and experience to know what to do if a threat of deadly force develops. An individual who only focuses on how and when to shoot will not be remotely prepared for the scenarios that may develop in your church.

Surveillance Detection.

Look at the size and layout of your building and ask yourself where a terrorist might stand to observe your building and what activities might be of interest for a potential attacker that is taking notes. There has not been a case of a terrorist attack against a church in the United States- that we know of- but it happens frequently in other countries. When things develop, they develop quickly. So take the time to study surveillance detection. Many times the mere fact that surveillance is being observed will prevent an attack from developing.

Greeters should be at every door and in the parking lot for those who need help or for ministry. Greeters should be observant. Know the signs of trouble. Disturbances that may occur are shouting at preacher during the sermon, a fight between teens or a potential domestic violence situation. Make sure that “gatekeepers” know about impending threats, stalking situations and/or domestic violence protection orders. Pastoral counseling and assistance to abused women (or men) can put those that intervene and the whole congregation right in the line of fire!

Dealing with a threat where no deadly force is present.

1. Every disturbance has the potential to escalate to Code Red very quickly. Your team should normally be in a state of heightened vigilance but outwardly relaxed/alert (Code Yellow). Code Orange is the point at which an unspecified incident or disturbance puts your team on full alert. At this point, you become aware of cover, lanes of movement for accessing and exiting the space you and others may be in. Who controls access to certain areas and is that person aware of indications that a situation may be developing?

Condition red is the point where an armed encounter with one or more opponents has materialized. The “trouble maker” has now demonstrated the ability to produce death or grave bodily harm combined with the opportunity and legal jeopardy (the perpetrator is in your church or parking lot of your business with a deadly weapon evidencing the intent to cause harm to innocent people). Grave bodily harm includes a life-threatening, crippling or disfiguring injury. In Afghanistan, the Taliban throws acid in women’s faces. What about the protesters that threw liquids at the delegates to the Republican convention last summer?

2. Give the location in the building where the disturbance is occurring. Do not tell law enforcement that there are armed volunteers present if the disturbance is not one that presents the threat of deadly force. If the first responders think that you have involved armed civilians, the police may not arrive until the SWAT team arrives which takes a great deal of time in most instances.

3. The person that goes to call the police should walk and not run. Walking indicates you are in control. Have someone that is prepared to take control of the situation go to all the buildings on your campus to lock doors and let teachers and staff know what is taking place.

4. You need an exit plan for the congregation. The church body needs to know they are to follow instructions from leaders. Visitors that do not attend regularly will follow the regular members. These leaders may be women or men. They need to know a place to go outside the church building. In the case of a larger church it may be another building that can be locked. Start walking people out- do not run. Tell them, “follow the leader, walk don’t run.”

Running shows fear. Walking says, “I am in control“.

Never stop. Never look at the trouble maker. Walk out. Start the church congregation singing as they walk out- “Jesus Loves Me” or some other song of praise that calms the congregation’s minds and blocks out whatever the active shooter may be saying to create fear or confusion. The goal is take control completely out of the hands of the trouble maker(s) or active shooter(s). Active shooter is a term of art that refers to a person or persons intent on taking as many lives as possible.

Be aware that there may be more than one shooter including embedded outriders/outliers that can mingle in the congregation and operate as backup for the visibly active shooter; i.e., the threat that you are able to immediately identify. The tactics that the world witnessed in Mumbai with automatic weapons and grenades may constitute the shape of future terrorist attacks. Attacks with small arms have long been predicted by almost all the credible experts.

If dealing with an armed troublemaker, the armed volunteers should be using cover but also need to be moving quickly toward the active shooter but do not surround him. If you are surrounding a shooter you are all in the line of each other’s fire! Stay in control and walk purposefully with an awareness of the big 360 degree picture.

Give commands forcefully but calmly. If there is no weapon displayed by the person creating a threat then keep your hands out front in the open. Pointed fingers or threatening actions may provoke more trouble. Stay two arms length away from the threat if possible. If it is a fist fight between two combatants intervene with great caution. Better two brawlers hurt each other than have someone turn on you with a knife or gun

If you are armed, you should avoid any physical contact that may lead to losing control of your weapon. If you are confronted with disparity of force (more than one assailant or a deadly weapon) do what you see as appropriate.

When law enforcement arrives clear away and point at the perpetrator without talking. In this manner the police will know immediately who the bad guy is. The police will need plenty of safe space to deal with the threat without having to be concerned about bystanders that may also pose a threat.

Sit down somewhere and keep the witnesses together. Wait for the police to ask questions. Wait until asked for identification before informing the police that you are armed. The police do not need assistance to catch the troublemaker if he runs away.

Practice verbal responses so you can remember them when you need to use them. Physical responses need to be practiced, so do verbal ones. Do not hesitate to call the police! It is alright to tell the officer that you have it resolved but may need an officer to remain close by.

If confronted with contact weapons such as knives, bats, screw drivers or other sharp objects do not run away.

1. Command the church body “Everyone get down on the floor and do not run. Get on the floor.”

2. Have someone call the police.

3. Armed volunteers should approach carefully while keeping a good distance from the attacker. A man with a contact weapon can move twenty feet before you can react especially if people are running around and creating confusion. In a loud command voice tell the perpetrator, “Put down the knife and face the wall. Put it down and get on the floor….”

4. Remember the 21 ft rule.

5. Stay at safe distance and wait for law enforcement. If your gun is out (which it normally would be if you are confronted with a contact weapon) reholster when the police arrive- but stay prepared. You should have a good distance between your tactical team and the perpetrator.

Do not attempt to handcuff or make any physical contact with an individual. You are not trained to do that. If there is even a possibility that the troublemaker is armed then stay behind cover at all times if possible.

If shooting starts.

1. Do not hesitate, now is the time to run and do not stop. Call 911 and inform law enforcement of the location of the shooting. Do not return.

2. Shooter may never give a clear shot at him. Will be walking down aisle; shooting at contact range. People will probably run in spite of commands.

3. Holler give commands, to congregation, “Get on the floor. Do not run, get down.”

4. If there is a circle of people around the active shooter as he walks between the church pews, no one can return fire without hitting other volunteers. If he is on an outside aisle against a wall there is a better possibility of obtaining a clear shot if everyone gets on the floor. By kneeling or shooting from close to the floor your rounds may travel upward, thus minimizing the chance of stray rounds hitting innocent bystanders. Bullets pass through walls and people, striking innocent people. Police use ammunition that breaks up when it hits and you may want to carefully consider the ammunition that you choose.

5. Those willing to take the shooter down should rush the shooter and keep coming until he is down. Push people down or out of the way, even run over children while shouting commands, “Get down, do not run, get on the floor!”

6. Those who choose to fight should focus on the weapon not the person. Control the weapon even if you have to absorb a shot to do so. Remember, an apparently lone attacker may have a partner acting as an oulier. After the active shooter(s) have been subdued, march everyone out to a safe place in the manner described above. You have now fulfilled Hebrews 11 by quenching the violence of fire, delivering your loved ones from the edge of the sword and administering justice. You have “waxed valiant in fight” and put alien armies to flight. Someone needs to call for medical assistance at this point.

7. When LEOs arrive all weapons should already be put away if possible. Make sure not to pick up the shooter’s weapon but keep your foot on it or secure it if there is a chance someone may pick it up. Do what the police tell you to do. Identify the wrongdoer to the police and make sure the police know that he had to be stopped in order to prevent innocent people from becoming victims. Point out evidence such as spent casings, weapons, etc. but do not provide details without a lawyer present.

Note well: Police officers have been taught the importance of obtaining legal counsel prior to making detailed statements so they will understand that you need some time before you answer questions. You will be experiencing an enormous rush of adrenaline but resist the urge to talk too much and make sure that you are not holding a weapon or doing anything when the police arrive that might cause them to regard you as a threat. That means to drop your gun on the floor without hesitation when commanded to do so.

This is not legal advice because, even though the author is a lawyer, every situation is governed upon very specific facts. Get training in the laws of self-defense and know the laws of your jurisdiction. Talk to local police authorities and make sure they are aware of your threat response plan. You alone are responsible for your actions, especially if you decide that you are faced with the deadly force that justifies deploying a weapon.

If anything herein is helpful, you or your church or business should feel free to reproduce these guidelines in whole or in part. We encourage you to submit your planning concepts and questions so that we can augment or correct what we have provided so far. This article is a work in progress.

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