Should there be Guns in Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples?

by Stephen Bryen

Since the latest mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, attention has again turned to the idea of asking church, synagogue, mosque and temple members to carry guns.

In fact, in Texas new laws will make it even easier to put guns in schools and churches.

Is this a good idea? 

Clearly there are different ways of looking at the question.

Having a weapon in hand is one way to fight back against an active shooter.  Since it may take police time to get to a location, fending off an attacker does make sense.

In the case of the Chabad of Poway synagogue shooting, one of the congregants had been encouraged to bring a gun in case something happened during holiday worship.  He did, but he was not in a position to actually confront the active shooter until the shooter’s semi-automatic rifle jammed.  By then, unfortunately a woman congregant was killed and a number of others were wounded.

In the case of the Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas it is reported that one mall goer had a gun and sheltered and helped evacuate children. But he did not use his gun and never confronted the shooter.

In Dayton police arrived at the scene very fast, in around a minute after the shooting began, and killed the shooter (who was wearing combat gear and a bulletproof vest). Unfortunately, by the time the shooter was taken down, the damage was already done.  There was  no guard present and no one was armed.  Would it have made any difference?  That’s far from clear.

One of the factors anyone with a sidearm or concealed gun has to consider is that active shooters often are very well armed and some of them wear combat equipment.  They even wear ear plugs or over the ear silencers (like the Dayton shooter), may be wearing a protective vest or even a Kevlar helmet, and have large and small semi-automatic weapons, sometimes with laser sights.  Can someone with a single action type handgun or pistol take on a shooter spraying a room or area with bullets?  

Image of the El Paso Shooter wearing ear silencers and carrying an AR-15 style semi automatic rifle

It is important to recognize that civilians with side arms may have some professional training, but it is even more likely they have none, or very little.  Some practice on a gun range may build familiarity with their weapon, but it is not the kind of training police have.  Far from it.

One of the (unfortunate) experiences with some armed guards, even some police is that they won’t confront a shooter and will only wait until there are significant reinforcements.  This tends to mean, in such cases that the active shooter can do a lot of damage before there is a police response that is effective.

An example is what happened to officer Timothy Madson.  He is one of the police heroes who fought to subdue and capture the active shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa.  Madson was hit multiple times by rounds from the shooter’s semi-automatic rifle and was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Three other officers with him were also wounded, but less seriously.  It wasn’t until a full SWAT team got to the synagogue that the shooter surrendered.’

Madson and his fellow officers were very well trained policemen who were courageous and stood up to the shooter.  One can only imagine the situation where a civilian congregant, or a teacher, or a staff person would try and challenge a well-equipped killer.

In addition to the likely possibility of an asymmetrical threat, advantage shooter, is the danger that a civilian, trying to stop a shooter ends up shooting an innocent person, whether an adult or a child.  In crowded circumstances there is a real danger of a mistake.

Are religious organizations ready to handle the liability issues if they encouraged the church member to have a gun?

A related consideration is what happens after law enforcement arrives?

Will the police think of the citizen with the gun is the active shooter threat with the gun?  If yes, then the citizen could end up in a gunfight with police, or more likely be hit before any explanations are given.

It seems to make more sense to have properly trained and certified armed guards, wearing uniforms. themselves properly equipped including protective vests and helmets.  

Thankfully, one of the new provisions of FEMA’s program to support security for faith-based institutions is for the first time to allow funds to be used for hiring guards. In prior years that was not allowed.  Unfortunately, FEMA funds are very limited, so there will be a long line of religious organizations that need help, but will either have to wait or look elsewhere.

While there isn’t anything any faith based organization can do to prevent a congregant from carrying a gun, provided he or she has a concealed carry permit (these permits are generally provided under state laws), relying on them for security is not a sound idea.

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Stephen Bryen is the author of the forthcoming book, Security for Holy Places: How to Do a Security Plan and Get Financial Help. Visit the book’s website at www.securityforholyplaces.org