Friendly, peaceful, and tight-knit. That’s how locals describe Roseburg, a rural community in southwest Oregon known for its large timber industry and local wineries. Crime is rare, and some even call the region “the Bible belt of Oregon.”
Peaceful, that is, until Oct. 1, when a disturbed young man with body armor, five pistols, and a semiautomatic rifle walked into a morning writing class at Umpqua Community College and began shooting students. As yet another mass shooting unfolded—with nine people killed, including a teacher and a woman in a wheelchair, and nine others injured—questions about security in public spaces loomed. Besides schools, churches are wondering how to protect themselves.
Witnesses eerily recounted how the Umpqua attacker, Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, told his victims to stand up and asked if they were Christians before shooting them. After police arrived and wounded the attacker in a shootout, he turned his gun on himself.
The Umpqua tragedy was one of more than 130 mass shootings the United States has seen in the past 15 years. While pastors in the Roseburg community sought to comfort the families and friends of victims, the nation once again rehashed the question of how to stop such attacks.
“Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” President Barack Obama said a few hours after the shooting, repeating his call for stricter gun laws and blaming Congress for inaction. “It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.”
But while politicians debate, many faith-based organizations and churches have already determined how they’ll handle the problem: They are creating their own security teams. Over the past decade, a church security training industry has emerged, and in some churches today, attendees are greeted on Sunday morning not just by pastors, deacons, and child care workers, but also by security volunteers carrying concealed weapons.
The growth of church security has been prompted by high-profile attacks targeting houses of worship and people of faith—a type of violence some evidence suggests is on the rise. It’s not yet clear to what extent anti-religious bias may have motivated the Umpqua killer. Although he reportedly professed disgust with organized religion in a note obtained by police, he also fumed about having no girlfriend and was described as withdrawn and unfriendly by neighbors.
Motives aside, the risks of attacks on religious persons are more obvious than ever.
In April 2012, a 43-year-old man used a handgun to kill seven people at Oikos University, a Christian school in Oakland, Calif.
In August of the same year, a 28-year-old man angry at the Family Research Council’s opposition to gay marriage entered the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters with a pistol and plans for a massacre. An unarmed building manager confronted the man in the lobby, taking a bullet to his arm before wresting away the gun.
And just this summer, a 21-year-old man sat through a Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel AME, a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., before pulling out a handgun and shooting to death nine people, including the pastor.
It’s not only Christian churches and organizations that have been attacked. Killers targeted the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist temple in Arizona in 1991, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006, and the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in 2012.
Since the shooting at its headquarters, Family Research Council has hired a full-time security manager and armed guards, according to the organization’s executive vice president, retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin.
“What do churches and ministries do? Well, they have to take necessary and prudent steps, unfortunately, just as many do in other locations around the world where Christians are routinely attacked,” Boykin said. His advice: “Take this seriously. It’s going to get worse.”
IF ANYONE UNDERSTANDS THE NEED FOR SECURITY, it’s Carl Chinn. He has the unlikely distinction of having confronted a crazed gunman twice, and lived to tell about it.
In 1996 Chinn was a building engineer at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. He had little interest or training in security issues, even though the organization had just finished implementing new security plans drawn up in response to the Oklahoma City bombing a year earlier. A newly installed set of panic buttons had not yet been tested when, on May 2, someone pressed one, sending an alert to employee radios, including Chinn’s.
“I responded to it thinking full well that it was a receptionist wondering what that new button did,” Chinn recalls. “And it was not. It was a hostage-taker with a gun and alleged explosives.”
Standing face to face with the intruder—an injured construction worker who cursed loudly and said he had enough explosives in his green military pack to bring down the building—Chinn was shocked speechless. He recalls feeling “complete stupidity” as he realized he didn’t know what to do or say: “I was totally unprepared for that moment, and I stood there like a bump on a log.”
Finally, someone pulled a fire alarm, and employees filed out of the building. Chinn, along with two female receptionists and an unarmed male security guard, became the man’s hostages for the next hour and a half, until a police negotiator convinced the intruder to let them go. (The explosives, it turned out, were fake.)
Following that incident, Chinn determined not to be caught flat-footed again. He began studying security issues, and in 2005 helped his church in Colorado Springs, New Life, organize an armed security team. He joined the team himself.
In 1999 Chinn began compiling news reports of violent events on faith-based properties at his personal website. FBI crime stats don’t necessarily categorize a death in a church parking lot as church-related, so Chinn’s database is more nuanced than others.
His research counts 176 violent incidents at U.S. faith-based organizations (including churches) in 2014, including suicides, abductions, and suspicious deaths. Incidents and deaths in his database have increased sharply since 1999. Chinn said some of the uptick might be due to the increasing availability of online news reports, where he collects most of his information.
But he believes faith-based attacks really are increasing in frequency: The first mass murder (four or more killed) ever to occur at a U.S. faith-based organization, to Chinn’s knowledge, was the 1963 bombing of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Since then, 12 more mass murder attacks have occurred at faith-based organizations.
As the attacks have grown, so has the faith-based security industry. Chuck Chadwick started the first church security company, now called the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management, in 2002. Today the group has an affiliate training school, the Christian Security Institute, providing church volunteers with training in de-escalation, firearms handling, and defensive tactics. Chadwick likes to call them “the laying on of hands in an unhealing way.”
Chadwick said problems at churches sometimes arise from domestic disputes or mental illnesses: “I’ve met Jesus three or four times. Michael the archangel. People with different mental conditions.”
Since 2002 dozens of church security businesses and programs have sprung up. Peter Johnson started one of them, Archway Defense, in Minnesota last year.
His organization is helping a handful of churches in the Twin Cities region implement emergency and security protocols and teaching them how to spot suspicious behavior—like a nervous visitor walking in with one arm pinned to his side, perhaps a sign of a concealed weapon.
“We don’t look for things, we look for people,” said Johnson, a former U.S. air marshal.
ON MARCH 8, 2009, shortly after the 8:15 Sunday morning service began at First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., a stranger walked calmly up the aisle, pulled out a Glock pistol, and fired at Pastor Fred Winters, who had begun to deliver his sermon. One bullet pierced the pastor’s Bible, and another his heart, killing him. The stunned congregation thought they were watching a skit.
The murderer, a 27-year-old schizophrenic man who stabbed himself in the neck while congregants tried to subdue him, survived and was declared not guilty by reason of insanity. He is confined to a mental institution.
From that murderous act came motivation for area churches to put security measures into place. Bethalto Church of God, a church of 450 on the northeast side of St. Louis, solicited advice from First Baptist’s security director and soon organized its own volunteer security and medical teams.
The safety and security director at Bethalto Church of God, Brad Myers, also spearheaded a security support group for about 15 local churches that sometimes meets for target practice.
At Myers’ church, plainclothes security team members with badges and earpieces greet visitors at the door. Those greetings help newcomers feel welcome but serve a secondary purpose. “They’re watching everyone,” Myers said. “You don’t want people coming in the building that you don’t know are there.”
Fifteen minutes after Sunday morning worship begins, team members lock all exterior doors except for a single main entrance. During the service, they position themselves so they can see the entire sanctuary, and at least one person patrols the hallways.
The church’s security and medical teams have dealt with intoxicated people and a medication overdose in a restroom. They are prepared to handle worse threats: Some security members carry guns. “We live in a fallen world. It is what it is, and we’re called to protect our little ones,” Myers said.
Lt. Craig Welch, the assistant chief of police at the Bethalto Police Department, said he’s supportive of facilities that provide their own armed security. Although his officers typically take only between 30 seconds and two minutes to respond to a call, he said, “there’s a lot of damage that can be done in two minutes.”
West Ridge Church, a congregation of 4,000 in Dallas, Ga., has taken a mixed approach. The church has panic buttons and security and medical teams but also contracts with the local sheriff’s department to have uniformed deputies patrol the building on Sundays and Wednesday nights. They intentionally park their squad cars out front—a sight administrative pastor Brian Kase said serves as a likely deterrent to troublemakers.
In Denison, Texas, Trinity Lighthouse Church put in place a trained and armed security team about five years ago. On a typical Sunday morning the team members do a perimeter search of the parking lot, escort the pastoral staff throughout the campus, and check the sanctuary before and after services for backpacks, packages, or anything else left behind.
The church’s security chief and associate pastor, Brian Ulch, has a background in mixed martial arts and close contact knife and gun handling, and serves as a part-time instructor for the Christian Security Institute. He calls it “gross neglect” for churches not to provide armed security for their congregants.
Some churches, in hopes of avoiding a shoot-out, have declared their properties gun-free zones, sometimes even putting a sign out front to announce the policy. And in some states, it’s illegal for citizens to carry concealed guns into churches unless a church gives express permission.
The United Methodist Church, for example, has declared its churches “weapon-free” zones, although local congregations are not legally bound to that position. A denominational spokesman provided a UMC Book of Resolutions statement that appealed to “the church’s traditional role as a place of safety and sanctuary.”
Ulch strongly disagrees with a gun-free approach. “Unfortunately, people that are armed and intent on inflicting death to innocent people—they do not want to negotiate. They do not talk, they come in and they literally wreak mayhem. And the only way that they can be stopped is to be engaged at the same level of force that they are actually inflicting.”
IT WAS A TIMELY THING for Carl Chinn to help New Life Church organize an armed security team in 2005, because mayhem struck just two years later, on Dec. 9, 2007. After Sunday morning services, at about 1:11 p.m., a 24-year-old man with tactical gear, a semiautomatic rifle, two pistols, and 1,400 rounds of ammunition began a rampage in the parking lot. There he shot to death two teenage sisters—Stephanie and Rachel Works. He then shot out the church doors and entered the building, where about 700 people were still mingling, including children.
Chinn, who heard the gunfire, came running and drew his own pistol. He took a concealed position near a corner and waited as the attacker advanced, walking up a 120-yard hallway toward the sanctuary with his rifle blazing. When the attacker had gone a third of the way, another member of the security team—Jeanne Assam—shot him in the legs. As he fell, he put his own pistol in his mouth and fired, a final act of self-murder.
The attack had lasted just three minutes, start to finish.
As Chinn stood over the attacker’s dead body with a racing heart, his first feeling was that of anger. The day’s tragedy would become a turning point for him. He would ultimately dedicate his life to ministry security, speaking at churches and publishing a book in 2012.
But in that bullet-riddled hallway, there was no time to assess feelings. Chinn didn’t yet know the attacker had acted alone.
He barked orders for team members to disperse and check the campus for more shooters. Police had not yet arrived, and there were still people to protect.