WASHINGTON – The federal government has released a guidebook to help churches respond to shooters and other on-site emergencies as part of President Obama’s executive actions to fight gun violence.
Titled “A Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operation Plans for Houses of Worship,” it offers suggestions and instructions apart from any laws or mandates. The guidebook is the work of a panel of 100 experts encompassing faith leaders, first responders, law enforcement officers, educators and emergency planners, who also released books for K-12 schools and higher education.
The faith leaders wanted to talk about making schools safer – and more, Vice President Joe Biden said in announcing the guidebook.
“They know, they’re worried, that their congregations are at risk. So they wanted to know what should they be thinking about when someone stands up in the middle of a congregation and decides to do something similar to what we saw in the schools,” Biden said of the group’s deliberations.
“So we gave concrete direction. We said, all of you come up with what you think are the best practices, the most concrete recommendations that you could give us that will enable us to teach or prepare or lay out a menu for the school districts and churches.”
The guide advises churches to develop a plan of action and, in the event of an active shooter in the church, to have the congregation already trained to “run, hide, or fight” depending on opportunity. Nowhere does the document advise church members to arm themselves with guns or other weapons.
Jimmy Meeks, a Southern Baptist preacher and Texas police officer who helps churches implement plans to protect worshippers, said the guidebook repeats information he and others have offered for years.
“You have to have some things in place. We’ve been pleading with people [to prepare],” said Meeks, who speaks at “Sheepdog Seminars” for churches, evoking the image of a dog protecting sheep. (See story.) “But I’m glad the federal government has awakened to this. … But the truth is … you just have to have some men in place in your congregation who’ve made up their mind if a shooter comes in, I’m going after him. I’m going down.”
Violent deaths in churches have surpassed those in schools, said Meeks, who has tracked 433 such deaths in churches since 1999, including 128 in Baptist congregations.
“Since 1999, churches have surpassed schools as to where you’re most likely to die a violent death. … About 100 people less have died in schools since ’99. Schools have actually gotten safer,” Meeks said.
“And they’re not all acts of shooters,” he noted. “Two brothers were stabbed to death … weeks ago in Huntsville, Ala., while working the church pantry. You’re not supposed to die working at the church pantry. So it’s not always shooters.”
The federal panel’s 32-page document for churches, downloadable at whitehouse.gov, was released under the umbrella of FEMA following the congressional defeat of Obama’s gun control initiatives.
Biden, in a mid-June news conference, described the guidebooks for churches and education facilities as comprehensive.
“We made sure the guidance reflects … all the lessons we’ve learned over the years to insure that schools, higher education, houses of worship have an opportunity to share the latest and best knowledge and advancement in emergency planning,” the vice president said. “All that work has been distilled down into the guidebooks… .”
While Meeks cautions church members not to arm themselves with guns without proper training and knowledge, state governments increasingly are passing laws allowing concealed weapons in houses of worship.
Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming have such laws, with varied stipulations, including the possession of a proper permit, training, church approval and congregational awareness, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Additionally, about 20 other states allow guns in churches because of “right to carry” laws, but in legislation have not specifically focused on churches.
Meeks said he has conducted 80 seminars serving 800 churches, typically leading two or three a month while working as a fulltime policeman.
“It isn’t rocket science. Just have some men in place who are willing to die,” Meeks said. “That’s all you can do. But I made up my mind … when I go to church if anyone has to die, it’s gonna be me. I don’t want to, but I don’t want you to either.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer. Information on Sheepdog seminars is available at sheepdogseminarsforchurches.com.)