The shooting of nine black churchgoers last year in Charleston, S.C., shocked the nation, causing many congregations to re-evaluate church security measures. Some North Carolina congregations encourage members to obtain concealed carry permits, but others say focusing on precautionary measures remains most important.
In 2015 there were more than 13,000 shooting deaths in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive. That number rose by 809 from 2014. Mass shootings also increased by 51 incidents.
In response, President Barack Obama and other government officials have advocated for tighter gun control. After the Charleston shooting, Obama said, “Innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
Photo by Justin Hewett
Participants at Peace Baptist Church in Whiteville listen in their conceal carry licensing class.
Despite the push for more restrictions, the Social Science Research Network estimates the number of concealed carry permits across the U.S. has risen from 4.6 million in 2007 to 12.8 million in 2015.
In fact, concealed carry courses have become something of a trend, and are sometimes offered on church grounds.
The Biblical Recorder interviewed several North Carolina Baptist leaders that offer concealed handgun permit courses to understand best practices for church security and gun safety.
“I take very seriously my role as a family protector, and also as a responsible citizen,” said Bobby Blanton, pastor at Lake Norman Baptist Church in Huntersville.
“If I can ever offer help to prevent harm to another citizen I feel it’s my social responsibility to do so. And because I enjoy using guns in sportsmanship, I feel a sense of responsibility to be knowledgeable in how to use them safely.”
Lake Norman is a large church that employs a security officer during corporate worship and other large gatherings. They also have a trained security team of members that includes police officers, nurses, firemen and others.
“We don’t want our church to be a soft target,” Blanton said.
The security team plans for emergency situations involving not only shooter scenarios, but also medical emergencies, procedures for lockdown situations and more.
Blanton recommended having “a frank conversation with any law enforcement in your church, letting them know that you would appreciate the further utilization of their skill set for the protection of the church.”
Pastor Chip Hannah of Peace Baptist Church in Whiteville said, “We do want people to be prepared in case of emergency, but we pray it never becomes necessary to use force.”
Photo by Justin Hewett
Conceal carry class participant practices using a firearm.
State-certified concealed carry instructor Justin Hewett said, “I feel having qualified members of the church community to protect our church family is paramount. I feel churches are [easy] targets for criminals and placing ‘good’ people inside the church with a weapon they are familiar with and comfortable with using is a great idea.”
Rodney Quesenberry, pastor of Broadus Baptist Church in Concord, highlighted the need to be vigilant in securing the weekly offering.
“Churches are vulnerable because of their offering plates,” Quesenberry said. “Criminals may view churches as soft targets because of the heavy traffic flow and openness to the community. We’ve had people come in asking if we’ve taken an offering and then searching through our offices looking for the plates.”
Security is a common motivator for churches offering concealed carry courses, but more often they see it as a way to interact with the surrounding community.
Gun safety as outreach
At First Baptist Church of Richlands, a concealed carry class was born out of the interests of members.
“We live in an area with a lot of people who are in the military and who like to get outdoors and hunt,” said pastor Gary McAbee. “So it’s just something that made sense for the people in our area. It’s a way to get them into the church, and maybe break down some barriers so they’re willing to come back again.”
He continued, “A few years ago, we launched a Sportsman’s Ministry and sponsored events like a wild game dinner, skeet-shooting tournament, fishing tournaments and camping trips as a way of reaching out to the men in our community as well as those within the church who enjoy the outdoors.”
Pastor Joel Stephens at Westfield Baptist Church gave similar reasons for the gun course held on church property.
“Security has not been our main motivator as much as the opportunity to create a bridge out to the community,” said Stephens. “It allows our staff to put a face out that represents the church. We give a gospel presentation at every class, and some participants have since joined our church.”
Best practices for church security
The term for a weaponless group of people – “soft target” – occurred often among the pastors interviewed. But when asked about explicit instructions for church members, none said they would openly encourage nor discourage congregants to carry concealed weapons.
“Having several concealed carry permitees at the church – preferably law enforcement officers – semi-strategically placed throughout the congregation … would be my first priority. Having a plan in place for what to do with the offering after it is collected is also a major issue in my opinion,” said Hewett.
McAbee recommended evaluating precautionary details such as building access, lighting, parking and awareness of one’s surroundings.
Captain Matthew May, who works as a police officer in Wake County, affirmed the emphasis on greater awareness and precaution, rather than focusing on arming church members.
“Obtaining a concealed carry permit does not automatically mean that someone is qualified and skilled enough to competently use a firearm in a deadly force situation,” May said.
“Before deciding to have armed security in a church, many factors must be considered that people don’t always think about, such as weapon retention during a physical confrontation, and how responding police officers will be able to differentiate the armed security members from the ‘bad guys.’”
May recommended preparing for scenarios that have lower risks but higher probability, like domestic disputes, medical emergencies, child safety and evacuation procedures. These issues arise more often, whereas active shooter scenarios are less likely.
“The security strategy should aim to be very holistic,” May said. “Talk to the trained law enforcement officers in your community or those who are members of your church, consult with your elders and do a lot of research.” Referencing Matthew 10:16, he expressed the desire for churches to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”