In the wake of the horrific tragedy in Sutherland Springs, Texas; a lot of my fellow believers are contacting me about how to be prepared for such an incident at their own place of worship. This isn’t the first shooting at a place of worship, and it won’t be the last; so, I understand the concern and the desire to be proactive. In my experience, this desire to be proactive usually subsides as the story makes its way out of the news cycle and people move on with their lives and recede back into complacency. However, I want to offer my best advice to anyone who would like to be prepared as an individual for personal defense inside of their church. Bottom line up front: you need to seek out real training and make regular practice a part of your lifestyle starting today and continuing long after this story has left the news cycle.
It is important to understand that while churches are a magnet for violent actors for a whole host of reasons, tragedies such as the one in Sutherland Springs are exceedingly rare, as are mass shootings in general. Statistically speaking, these types of events are not actually increasing in frequency on the aggregate despite what the media may imply, and the likelihood of being involved in such an incident is still very low. As such, instead of thinking specifically about how to respond to a mass shooter, you ought to first be thinking about the far more likely scenarios that you might face as an armed citizen in church or anywhere else in the public space.
I am a big advocate for using what is called the “plausibility principle” in approaching personal defense. This principle states that we should focus our limited resources on preparing for the more plausible defensive scenarios based on our lifestyle, and then only start to think about much less likely but still “possible” scenarios once we have mastered the skillset needed to deal with the former. Mass murder events fall on the very edges of what is plausible, so it would be foolish to consider attending an “active shooter response” class if you haven’t been through some basic defensive shooting classes already. Therefore, my first piece of advice is to master the basics. The basics as I define them are: ability to present the firearm from concealment and engage a threat from the most likely personal defense distance of about 10-12 feet with a multiple shot, rapid string of accurate fire, and to make precise shots at head size targets from that same distance.
Once you have mastered those basic skills, you can start working on reloads, engaging multiple threats, and dealing with more extreme distances out to 25+ yards; all of which could be necessary in responding to a spree killer or killers. Learning how to identify and utilize cover would also be beneficial, as would learning how to move through a crowd of people while armed. If your church has a security team, knowing how you fit into their response plan would also be beneficial. Church security teams ought to have a plan for how to identify and integrate with armed citizens in the congregation, and it would behoove you as an armed citizen to know what that plan is. For more on my general thoughts on church security, refer to my 2015 Personal Defense Network article on the subject.
Since Texas is a state that requires licensing to carry a concealed handgun, there is usually an uptick in people seeking out licensing classes in the aftermath of this type of tragedy. That’s great, but unfortunately most people usually stop there. Licensing classes are nothing but a state mandated way to gain access to your rights. The live fire portion of the class (and usually the legal portion for that matter) is in no way “training” and should not be considered anything more than a formality. If you’re in a position of authority at a church, you need to understand that just having more people carrying guns in your church ought not be your end goal. You want those people to be trained and proficient as well, and you just can’t get there by only meeting the state mandate. So instead of just working with a local instructor to find a free or low-cost licensing class as some are likely to consider, try to work with a trainer to get an actual training class together.
Beyond that, I would highly recommend medical training. If you don’t carry a medical kit on your person and know how to use it to stop a traumatic bleed, you need to make that a priority even before considering the armed response aspect. While you may not be in the right place at the right time to stop the threat with your firearm, you could very well be in a position to save lives with your medical kit when the smoke clears. Having the ability to apply a tourniquet and/or pressure dressing, and to pack a wound with quick clotting agents is as essential as being able to shoot fast and accurate in a mass casualty situation. Paramedics are unlikely to show up in time to save people who are bleeding out, so it’s going to be on you and the people with you to patch each other up.
You may also have people in your congregation who are not ready or willing to carry firearms for personal defense. While firearms are the most efficient tools to fight a spree killer with, they are certainly not the only option. Regardless of whether you are armed or not, “hide and hope” is not a good strategy. Guns are not magical, and evil men with guns can be defeated by good people who are willing to fight back with whatever means at their disposal. If you have even a small percentage of your congregation that is willing to fight with a spree killer, armed or not, the survival chances increase for everyone. You can do your part in changing the mentality of people and increasing their willingness to fight just in the conversations you have about these incidents. These would-be mass murderers aren’t expecting to have a fight on their hands when they walk into a church service, school or place of work. You can help to change the paradigm one conversation at a time.
I think it is unfortunate that something like the tragedy at Sutherland Springs is what it takes for some folks to consider how they can be better prepared to defend themselves; but so be it. If you are really serious though, you can’t just attend a one day seminar or read a blog post and call it good. To truly be prepared, you are going to have to make training and practice a priority. Start with the basics and then move on to some more specific considerations as mentioned above. Don’t just let the raw emotion surrounding this event and others like it subside while you do nothing. If the evil you saw manifest itself in this event disgusts you, get busy today preparing yourself to confront it. You don’t get to choose when it happens, you just get to choose how ready you are for it.