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Practical Solutions for Stopping Active Shooters: Places of Worship

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 42


2018's Pittsburgh synagogue massacre wasn’t America’s first mass shooting at a house of worship.

In recent history, we’ve seen several, including:

In 2017, an extremist murdered 11 at a mosque in Canada, and an American was arrested for a plot to attack a mosque here at home. The year 2018 saw an American white supremacist murder two black men and tell a white man, “Whites don’t kill whites,” after failing to force entry into a black church in an apparent attempt to commit another massacre.

According to one researcher, America never had a church shooting resulting in four or more deaths until 1963.

Since 1963, we’ve had 15.

Of those, at least five have occurred since 2007. At least three other attempted mass shootings, which killed less than four took place in that timeframe. Mass shootings at houses of worship aren’t brand new to America, but they’re definitely on the rise.


The motives behind mass shootings at houses of worship are, of course, usually but not always ideological.

White supremacists were responsible for the Sikh Temple, Charleston Church, and Pittsburgh Synagogue massacres; the Charleston shooter was actually trying to spark a race war. The New Life Church shooter was suffering from “Religious Trauma Syndrome” coupled with an intense hatred of Christianity (and a murderous grudge).

Church dark

The Antioch, Tennessee, church shooter was apparently seeking revenge for the Charleston Church Massacre, so he attacked a mixed-race church, but shot only whites.

The Toronto Mosque shooter was virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Islam. The Knoxville Unitarian Church shooter was anti-liberal, anti-black, anti-democrat, and anti-gay.

The Sutherland Springs church attacker, on the other hand, was driven purely by personal motives, and Arizona’s 1991 Waddell Buddhist Temple massacre of nine worshippers was the result of a robbery gone wrong.

Case Studies

Sutherland Springs, Texas

In November 2017, in response to what was probably nothing more than a minor family dispute, a shooter I won’t name attacked the church his wife and in-laws attended in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Sutherland Springs, Texas
Sutherland Springs, Texas

The shooter, a former Airman turned complete failure in life, killed his first victims outside the church. He then fired through the windows for several minutes before entering the front doors.

As far as I can tell, not one single person in that rural Texas church was armed or resisted in any way.

The shooter was able to casually walk through the church, making comments, reloading at leisure, walking outside and then re-entering, and shooting everyone who showed signs of life.

He expended 15 AR magazines and eventually left the church, 13 minutes after the first shot was fired. He spent seven minutes inside the church, each of which must have felt endless to the survivors. The entire attack was captured on a video camera, set up to record services for the church’s YouTube channel.

After leaving the church, the shooter was confronted by local resident and NRA instructor Stephen Willeford, who was armed with his own AR.

Willeford hit the shooter twice; not surprisingly, the shooter dropped his own carbine and only briefly tried to fight back with a pistol before fleeing in his SUV. Like most mass shooters, he was capable of operating a weapon and killing defenseless people, but not fighting.

He was found dead in his vehicle from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Police response was quick, but not quick enough. The first officer arrived four minutes after being dispatched, but that was long after the last shot had been fired.

The shooter had been in total control, able to murder at will, with nothing to stop him from killing until he got tired and inexplicably stopped on his own. He still had two pistols and ammunition on him when he committed suicide.

In and around the church, he left 26 dead, including an unborn child.

New Life Church, Arvada, Colorado

The New Life Church attack in Colorado, on the other hand, had a very different outcome.

New Life Church, Colorado

On December 9, 2007, a shooter armed with an AR-type rifle and two pistols killed two people and wounded two others outside the Youth With A Mission center in Arvada, Colorado.

He fled and, a short time later, killed two teenage sisters, badly wounded their father, and wounded another churchgoer in the parking lot of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

He then entered the church foyer and wounded a man who was yelling in an effort to distract him from killing others.

At this point, Jeanne Assam, a former police officer and volunteer member of the church security team, advanced on the shooter. She engaged with her concealed-carry pistol and hit the shooter with multiple rounds.

He fell and, depending on who you ask, either shot himself or died of his wounds. Notably, he was stopped before he could enter the crowded main hall of the church; Jeanne Assam’s quick response saved probably dozens of lives.

Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, Antioch, Tennessee

Likewise, the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ shooting in Antioch, Tennessee, in September 2017 was stopped by resistance from one of the shooter’s intended targets.

After killing a woman in the parking lot, the shooter entered the church’s back doors and began targeting white churchgoers.

One of them, Robert Engle, was unarmed but attacked the shooter anyway.

Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, Antioch, Tennessee
Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, Antioch, Tennessee

During the fight, the shooter pistol-whipped Engle, but then somehow managed to shoot himself in the chest.

Engle ran outside to his car, retrieved his own pistol and held the shooter at gunpoint until police arrived. The toll of the attack was one dead, and six with survivable gunshot wounds.

Resistance, even resistance that was initially unarmed, prevented a far higher body count.

Unitarian Universalist Church, Knoxville, Tennessee

Unarmed resistance also stopped the Unitarian Universalist Church shooter in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2008.

That attacker, armed with a semi-auto shotgun, killed two and wounded six before being restrained by five churchgoers who appear to have had no option other than physical force.

Laws Aren’t the Answer

We don’t know how to prevent church shootings.

Nobody does, despite cries by some for an “assault weapon ban.” Gun laws don’t magically make weapons disappear, nor do they stop a determined criminal from illegally obtaining one.

Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum employees are often asked why Texas Rangers still need guns if they're mostly doing investigative work today. The exhibit "The Changing Face of Crime" displays some of the illegal firearms confiscated in the Waco/McLennan County area. This exhibit explains the need for law enforcement officers to still be trained in use of firearms, even if using such tools are a last resource.
Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum employees are often asked why Texas Rangers still need guns if they're mostly doing investigative work today. The exhibit “The Changing Face of Crime” displays some of the illegal firearms confiscated in the Waco/McLennan County area. This exhibit explains the need for law enforcement officers to still be trained in use of firearms, even if using such tools are a last resource.

Moreover, even the so-called “assault weapon ban” wouldn’t have prevented the Charleston, Sikh Temple, Antioch, Waddell, or Knoxville shootings, all of which were carried out with pistols, shotguns, and/or a regular .22 rifle.

Even the most “perfect” gun law passed today wouldn’t change reality tomorrow, if ever.

Straightforward Solutions

From my perspective as a longtime cop, former police active shooter instructor, combat veteran, and former churchgoer, preventing church shootings seems pretty straightforward:

  • Restrict the number of entrances/exits
  • Hire security or choose suitable volunteers
  • Have them concealed carry and stay positioned near the entry doors
  • Make active shooter response plans in conjunction with local law enforcement
  • Train/rehearse as often as possible

The idea is to have armed, trained people on hand to quickly spot and immediately overwhelm a church attacker with lethal violence.

One might think that those who lead churches would welcome the presence of such armed parishioners willing to use force to protect their innocent flock. So why aren’t more churches implementing these simple steps?

As far as I can tell, it’s because the “leaders” of many of these churches don’t want them to.

Whether it’s a church, temple, or mosque, all have had attacks.
Whether it’s a church, temple, or mosque, all have had attacks.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know of any way these attacks could have been prevented.

But what does change reality, and can change it immediately, is the introduction of armed, trained defenders covering controlled access points inside churches. Most houses of worship, of all faiths, consist of a large main hall surrounded by smaller rooms and connecting hallways.

A mass shooter’s first target will be the densely packed main hall where he can kill the largest number of victims in the least amount of time, which is every mass shooter’s goal. Therefore, restricting access to a few doors or even one door into the main hall, and positioning covertly armed security near those doors, drastically increases the odds that a church attacker will be stopped long before he’s able to carry out his planned massacre.

A mass shooter’s first target will be the densely packed main hall, where he can kill the largest number of victims in the least amount of time.
A mass shooter’s first target will be the densely packed main hall, where he can kill the largest number of victims in the least amount of time.

No, the plan I’m proposing isn’t perfect.

Yes, an attacker could surprise everyone by targeting an unexpected part of the church.

Yes, defenders could be badly outgunned by a rifle-armed attacker or even multiple attackers (although Jeanne Assam, because she had training and skill, was able to use her pistol to defeat a carbine-armed attacker).

Yes, police could accidentally shoot the good guy.

And yes, defenders could accidentally hit the wrong person in the confusion of preventing a shooting.

Not surprisingly, a mass shooting is pretty much a worst-case scenario. No response will be “perfect.” Nothing will save everyone.

Nothing will prevent every possible tragedy. Nothing will guarantee that good guys won’t make mistakes and hit unintended targets.

But even a flubbed response is better than allowing the deaths of six, nine, 11, or 26 innocent, helpless victims. Nobody is going to convince me that shooting at a mass murderer makes the situation worse. After Sutherland Springs, I didn’t hear anyone say, “Thank God nobody inside the church shot back. That could have caused a real tragedy.”

What, then, makes churches, which should be fairly simple to defend, such easy targets, and what keeps them easy targets?

Shephards Need Sheepdogs

Far too often, it’s the “shepherds” who lead those churches.

For reasons I’ve yet to comprehend, some of those leaders keep worrying that allowing concealed carry in their churches will turn them into “armed camps.” One even called having a gun in church “a perversion of everything holy.”

But the idea that locked doors and armed plainclothes security in churches would turn them into hostile, unwelcoming fortresses isn’t just wrong, it’s self-defeating lunacy.

A church with a few locked doors and a few armed parishioners looks exactly like a church with no locked doors and a completely unarmed flock.

The New Life Church didn’t resemble Alcatraz; for that matter, it didn’t look any different than the ill-fated churches of Sutherland Springs and Charleston. And Jeanne Assam, far from resembling an assassin or Navy SEAL, looked like the typical churchgoer she was.

Real security measures don’t require highly visible gestures more suitable for theater than safety; they require simple yet concrete actions that change dynamics.

Muslim Friday mass prayer in Iran

The current dynamic involves unchallenged attackers entering wide-open houses of worship to murder as many helpless victims as possible until police arrive.

A new dynamic, easily attainable in a short time, would have an attacker funneled into one of a very few entrances, where covertly armed and vigilant churchgoers could immediately apply controlled yet overwhelming violence to stop the attack and save lives.

As I stated above, there’s no guarantee all innocents will live and all bad guys will be quickly stopped. But church attackers who faced determined resistance killed very few people, while those who didn’t were able to kill many.

Clearly, faith and hope — the current tactics employed by thousands of churches nationwide — aren’t as effective as controlled access and the presence of men and women prepared to defend their fellow faithful.

The mere knowledge that multiple people in a church could be armed, whether they actually are or not, is likely enough to deter the average coward who wants to murder, but is terrified to fight.

Fortunately, some church leaders realized this long ago and put armed security in place. Thus far, armed security in churches hasn’t led to the tragedies that gun-control advocates insist are inevitable. Maybe, just maybe, other churches should follow their lead instead of leaving it in their God’s hands.

About the Author

Chris Hernandez is a former Marine and retired Army National Guard Soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s been a police officer for almost 25 years and is the author of Proof of Our Resolve, Line in the Valley, and Safe From the War, novels published by Tactical 16, LLC. Chris lives with his wife, children, and grandchildren in southeast Texas.

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2 responses to “Practical Solutions for Stopping Active Shooters: Places of Worship”

  1. Glover says:

    Hi, thanks for your wonderfull post.Do you know?The mosque statement said the man was also armed with “numerous other sharp edged weapons.”

  2. John says:

    Thanks for the article Chris, I lead the Life Safety Team at our church I have read and re-read information on all of the place of worship shootings you mentioned plus many more. When someone is intent on harming someone in a place worship chances are someone will be hurt, but after that the churches preparation to stop more violence will be the determining factor in how quick it’s stopped, the sooner it stops the fewer that will be hurt, it really is a numbers game. Be safe.

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