*This article is taken from the guide Protecting Houses of Worship. Click below to get the FREE full-color, printable PDF!
Protecting Houses of Worship ⇐ Claim Your Guide
Written by Rick Sapp
Where is the safe place? Is it our home, our neighborhood, our school, our church, synagogue or temple? Perhaps in this post-electronic age there is no safe place. And that is not the world we imagined passing to our children.
Still, we must address the danger…
2012 — Rutherford, New Jersey: At 4:30 a.m., the Congregation Beth El synagogue is firebombed. Rabbi Nosson Schuman is in the upstairs residence with his wife and five children.
2012 — Goose Creek, South Carolina: As the choir of St. James United Methodist Church rehearses, a man walks in the unlocked door. He has a gun and yells at choir members to get on the floor. He robs the choir and escapes with cellphones, billfolds and purses.
2012 — Jacksonville, Florida: Fired from his job teaching Spanish at the Episcopal School, Shane Schumerth returns with a guitar case. He opens the case, pulls out an AK-47 and kills Dale Regan, the head of the school.
2013 — Ashtabula, Ohio: Shouting Islamic quotes, Reshad Riddle walks into the Easter morning service at the Hiawatha Church of God in Christ with a handgun. He shoots and kills his father, Richard.
2013 — Albuquerque, New Mexico: During the funeral for his sister at New Beginnings Church, William Chavez walks into the service and begins arguing with a former son-in-law. Security escorts the men outside, where Chavez pulls a gun, shoots the son-in-law and then shoots at security before running away.
An Unfolding Drama
On December 9, 2007, Jeanne Assam had volunteered to serve as one of the security guards for the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Located barely a mile east of the U.S. Air Force Academy across Interstate 25, New Life is a “charismatic evangelical Christian non-denominational mega-church.” Assam, a former police officer, was one of its 10,000 members.
Singing and praying, church members did not know they were being stalked by a killer. A son of a Colorado neurologist had already murdered two people and wounded two others that morning at the Youth with a Mission Center, a Christian training program 60 miles north in Arvada, a suburb of Denver. The 24-year-old had also written his last angry letter to God: “All I want to do is kill and injure as many of you … as I can, especially Christians, who are to blame for most of the problems in the world.”
Boiling with petty grudges and hatreds, tormented by countless slights in a world that refused to acknowledge his sincerity and genius, the shooter had legally purchased, and now carried, a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15 rifle and two loaded handguns: a .40-caliber Beretta and a 9mm Springfield. He also stashed an AK-47 in the trunk of his car along with 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
Assam, meanwhile, was on duty with the New Life security team, which numbered 15 to 20 individuals that day. Although not employed as a law enforcement professional at the time, she was the only professionally trained team member — and she had a license to carry her 9mm Beretta. (New Life Senior Pastor Brady Boyd later recalled that it was Assam who, hearing news reports about the Arvada murders, had suggested increasing security for the 7,000 or so people attending church that day.)
During the 11 a.m. Sunday service, the church stalker — now a wanted murderer — drove his 1992 Toyota Camry to the 42-acre campus of the Colorado Springs church. He pulled into the snow-covered parking lot wearing blue earplugs, a weight-bearing vest and kneepads. His first action was to slip on a backpack filled with ammo and spare magazines. Then he ignited smoke canisters at the north and south entrances to the worship center.
When the service ended, members began flooding into the church’s east parking lot … and the killer began shooting. His first victims were two teenage girls and their father. In the next few minutes, he would fire as many as 30 times, wounding two more people.
Force-On-Force: The Encounter
The facts of Assam’s encounter with the shooter have been examined and debated, but this much seems to be true:
- At about 1 p.m., the murderer shot four people in the east parking lot. He walked into the church vestibule and shot another member of the congregation.
- Assam, who had attended an early morning service and was then on duty with the security team, heard screaming and shooting. People were running and grabbing their children. Doors were slamming. It was chaos inside the church.
- The active shooter then shot out double-paned glass doors and entered the church through the east entrance, firing as he walked down the corridor.
- In only her second month as a security volunteer, Assam was 100 yards from the shattered doors. A team member screamed, “Jeanne! He’s coming through the doors!” To stop the gunman, she had to first negotiate a maze of hallways and classrooms, all filling with terrified people.
- Assam drew her Beretta, ensured that a round was chambered and worked her way toward the sound of gunfire.
- Within a minute of the killer entering the building, Assam stepped away from a side wall and ordered him to drop his weapon. Instead, he began shooting at her. It was not a training scenario, and there was no cover in the hallway. Assam advanced, firing: two, three, four, five times. The shooter fell but swung his rifle up, so Assam continued to fire.
- Assam’s courage and direct force-on-force action saved dozens of lives.
Afterward, New Life Pastor Boyd called Assam “a real hero.” The shooter, he said, “had enough ammunition on him to cause a lot of damage.” A month later, U.S. President George W. Bush flew to Colorado for a fundraising event and met several of that state’s volunteers. Assam was among them. Asked later what the president told her, she recalled, “He said, ‘Well done, good job.’ He was proud of me.”
The Perils of Celebrity
After shooting the New Life Church murderer and meeting the president, Assam’s life spiraled out of control. She and her actions that Sunday morning have been investigated, written about and debated in detail. She might say her life has been torn, stapled and mutilated. For a hero, such results were unexpected.
The bones of Assam’s 50-year life have been laid bare for public scrutiny — work and family history; neighbors, friends and lovers; personal integrity; finances; even her pets — and, like most lives, hers has had its successes and failures; its joys and tears. As a result of her loss of privacy and control, she now refuses most requests for interviews.
Assam’s story is a cautionary tale, not only about concealed carry and our search for a safe place but also for anyone who suddenly finds herself (or himself) projected into the spotlight.
In an email exchange with the author on Feb. 25 and 26, 2014, she wrote that her “name and picture have been used inappropriately:”
I appreciate the offer [of the interview], but after so many people who have written books and magazine articles refuse[d] to print the truth, I don’t want to do anymore articles. I have been betrayed and lied about enough. Promises made and broken without a conscience. Quite ugly. I’m sorry — you’re a nice man and I appreciate that — but I won’t do another interview.
Seven years after her heroic Sunday actions, Assam blames writers and commentators for betraying her and for exhibiting an “incredible lack of integrity.”
Quibbling With the Coroner
Assam began swimming against the public current as soon as the coroner’s report detailing the death of the gunman was released. “The death … has been ruled a suicide,” said the El Paso County Coroner’s Office. “It should be noted that he was struck multiple times by the security officer [Assam], which put him down. He then fired a single round, killing himself.” Police Sergeant Skip Arms told the Associated Press that the killer shot himself in the head.
Assam is no longer a member of New Life Church, but she remains studiously — almost aggressively — religious. She believes absolutely and unquestionably that her bullets killed the active shooter. It was not a suicide, she says, because God personally directed her that Sunday morning. For Assam, this is a point of honor from which she cannot walk away.
An average person might feel relief knowing there was doubt whether she or he had fired the bullet that killed someone, even someone committing an evil act. Thus, the coroner’s report was a “pass,” similar to the “blank” given to one unknown member of a firing squad so that each member might reasonably claim that he or she had not fired the fatal bullet.
But Assam sees her encounter with the gunman in the Christian sanctuary as a battle in the war between “good and evil,” a battle that, she has said, “means very little to reporters.” Thus her point of departure from the average licensed carrier of a concealed weapon. Assam’s shootout with the killer might have only lasted 15 seconds, yet it still defines and even consumes her life. The idea of killing someone so evil was a redemptive act in a difficult life; it is an act to which she desperately clings.
On Dec. 9, 2007, Jeanne Assam acted heroically and saved countless lives. Nevertheless, she quibbles with and renounces every story written — every interview taped — about those events, even though no misinterpretation or small error of fact is worth the emotional resources she invests disputing and correcting them.
Happiness means moving on, unless one is a warrior in a great conflagration pitting good against evil. Then the act of “moving on” might be seen as surrender rather than renunciation or acquiescence. And so, Assam is trapped in her own narrative.
Assam argues about the usefulness of urging civilians to take lessons from her story. She believes she was the only member of the New Life security team capable of stopping the shooter, even though four other team members were armed. Other team members just did not know what to do, she says. They did not know how to react because they did not have her level of police training. She only credits other team members with helping churchgoers get out of her way.
Just because a civilian is armed, she has said, doesn’t mean he or she can successfully take on a gunman, which is true enough and puts the period to training.
Perhaps the takeaway is that after you become a public figure, whether you choose that path or it chooses you, your life — your history, your privacy, your beliefs — will acquire an unexpected, and maybe even an undesirable, trajectory. Neither you nor your life story will ever be the same. Just ask Jeanne Assam.
Assam has attempted to correct what she considers the continuous twisting and reinterpretation of her story. In 2010, she wrote a book about her life and her experience that Sunday morning at the New Life Church — God, the Gunman and Me — available through Amazon.
An astonishing number of confrontations occur at American places of worship. Murder, arson, kidnapping, assault and robbery do not respect religious barriers. Carl Chinn, author of Evil Invades Sanctuary, catalogs them at CarlChinn.com.
Chinn says that, in 2005, he helped develop the security protocol for New Life Church and was “one of the team of responders directly involved with the active shooter” whom Assam shot in December 2007. He now serves New Life security, he notes, as threat investigator and a liaison between law enforcement and ministry security operations.
Chinn calls the Gatekeepers Model “the most thorough program I have ever seen and am now involved with.” This model is a security program that focuses on faith-based volunteer teams, and more information is available at NOCSSM.org/GSS.
“The training keeps in mind the reality that most who serve on church teams are volunteers, so it doesn’t send them through roll-in-the dirt 100-hour courses. It does end with them needing to qualify and re-qualify annually, consistent with law-enforcement P.O.S.T. courses applicable in their state.”
Written by David Burnett
On June 17, 2015, one criminal’s lone-wolf attack on a prayer service in South Carolina became the latest killing spree to attract headlines … and fundraising pleas from gun-control advocates.
Although disturbed journals of the suspect were found, detailing how alone the man felt in his prejudice, the attacks were still hailed not only as emblematic of systemic racism but also a springboard to demand tighter restrictions on the guns in your home. Almost automatically, politicians began musing that new laws could stop future violence. Of course, since South Carolina churches are gun-free zones by law (pending clergy exemption), and since the suspect was not legally permitted to purchase, own or carry a gun, it requires intense imagination to suppose added laws would have deterred him.
Church Shootings on the Rise
Every mass shooting sparks discussions of what went wrong and how to further secure target locations — in this case, churches. Spree killings can (and do) happen anywhere, but records indicate church shootings are on the rise.
In May 2015, a Connecticut pastor setting up Memorial Day flags outside his Nazarene church was wounded in a drive-by shooting. In 2008, a Maryville, Illinois, pastor was gunned down in the middle of his sermon, with witnesses reporting the man unsuccessfully tried to use his Bible as a shield from the gunfire. In 2012, a Wisconsin Sikh temple fell under siege from a lone gunman, who killed six and wounded four. Two Catholic priests were shot in a Phoenix parish in 2014. A 2008 Universalist church shooting left two dead and seven wounded, while a 2007 Missouri church shooting left a pastor and two deacons dead. In 2006, a Louisiana service was halted when five people were shot, four fatally, before the shooter abducted and murdered his wife.
In February 2016, officials announced the arrest of an Islamic State sympathizer in Dearborn, Michigan, who intended to target an unidentified Detroit megachurch for mass murder.
“It’s easy, and a lot of people go there,” the complaint quotes the shooting suspect. “Plus, people are not allowed to carry guns in church.”
The circumstances surrounding each were different, but the lessons are the same: Murderers have no respect for the church, and it takes more than a Bible to stop a bullet.
Mass murders always leave difficult questions in their wake, but we as gun owners shouldn’t try to avoid those questions. Although ensuing discussions inevitably assume a political bent, it’s our humanity — not politics — that obligates us to reject further obstruction of lawfully armed resistance. After all, history is indisputable on two points: Rapid mass murders occur almost exclusively in gun-free zones and increasing access to lawful self-defense can increase the odds of surviving them.
On an individual level, houses of worship are still grappling with how to respond. Large churches often hire security firms or off-duty police officers. Some recruit volunteers, and many have raised awareness — and eyebrows — by hosting concealed carry classes for members. Certain gun shops have offered discounts and classes specifically for clergy, such as one Louisiana firm that, after the Charleston shootings, hosted a class exclusively for area ministers and their spouses. Some ministers go on to carry from the pulpit or incorporate self-defense into their messages.
“We’re not in Mayberry anymore,” one Catholic priest said in a lengthy statement to his Ann Arbor, Michigan, parish regarding organized concealed carry classes. (Unfortunately, the Diocese bishop superseded the priest and forced the class to cancel.)
Some churches even went as far as a Kentucky church that hosted “Bring Your Gun to Church” day in 2009 or a Dallas area megachurch that invited congregants to carry openly. Others host gun “buy-backs” or candlelight vigils to encourage non-violence.
Bottom line: The church is in on the debate, whether they like it or not.
The federal government has recognized the problem and has issued a report on “Developing High-Quality Emergency Operation Plans for Houses of Worship.” Although the report noted that 16 of 41 active shooter incidents studied were ended by potential victims before police arrived, fighting back is advised only if flight or hiding is not possible. (They suggest using such weapons as “fire extinguishers or chairs.”)
In July 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also hosted a summit in Detroit with officials from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to discuss threat reduction, action plans and protection of congregations. Among recommendations, officials encourage holding drills, analyzing and preventing potential threats, and planning evacuation routes. In February, the FBI hosted more than 160 faith leaders in Dallas to address the unique threats faced by church leaders.
Concealed carry isn’t automatically an option. Certain states prohibit worshipping while armed, and even some shooting enthusiasts hesitate to carry in church, uncertain of conflicts with doctrinal orthodoxy. Many civilized congregants are incredulous that anyone would ever need a gun in church.
Proof Is in the Pastors
Retired-lieutenant-turned-minister Lawrence Adams knows better. He routinely wears a concealed pistol beneath his robes. In 2009, he responded to an alarm in his Detroit church and was confronted and attacked by an intruder. Drawing on his police training, Adams pulled a concealed firearm and opened fire.
In July 2015, an armed church employee in Boulder, Colorado, intervened when a drunken man attacked his estranged wife in a church parking lot. As the man stabbed the woman and began strangling her, the employee displayed a firearm and sent the man running. Local sheriff Joe Pelle told reporters many church-goers had begun carrying in response to church threats.
Also in July, a would-be robber in Baytown, Texas, kicked down a church door, not expecting to find the well-armed Pastor Benny Holmes inside. Fearing for his life, Holmes shot the intruder. (Less than a year earlier, Pastor Holmes had apprehended a serial thief at gunpoint in his home.)
Stories such as these provide a cold reality check on the fearful whispers of gun-control advocates who claim guns “only make things worse.” Indeed, guns aren’t the solution to every problem, but they are a solution to some problems, and that includes rapid mass murders.
Charleston’s high body count in 2015 dominated headlines, but 200 miles and three years away, another church avoided a similar situation thanks to concealed carry. In March 2012, a convicted felon entered a small Baptist church in South Carolina and pointed a loaded shotgun at the congregation. Parishioner Aaron Guyton drew his concealed handgun and held the intruder at gunpoint, working with the pastor and others to disarm and subdue him. No shots were fired, and authorities praised Guyton for his actions.
“I hope the bad guys are watching, because we are tired of your nonsense,” Sheriff Chuck Wright told reporters. “People are simply protecting their families. Prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen.”
Aurora, Colorado, is still famous for its theater murders, but 20 miles and two months away, a convicted felon crashed into an Aurora church parking lot and opened fire on the crowd, killing one. The man was promptly shot dead by the victim’s nephew, an off-duty police officer.
Then there’s the New Life Church in Colorado. Just 50 miles from the notorious Columbine High School in Littleton, an intruder armed with hundreds of rounds of ammunition and smoke grenades entered the megachurch and opened fire. He was confronted and killed by former law enforcement officer Jeanne Assam, who was acting as volunteer security for the day. (Although the media and even Assam herself continue to define her role as law enforcement, her legal capacity that day was as a private citizen.)
Why don’t armed citizens stop mass shootings? Because they stopped them before they became mass shootings. Would guns in Charleston have stopped the killer? Thanks to lawmakers, we’ll never know. But one thing is clear: Status quo isn’t the answer.
Naturally, denizens of non-violence will still argue that turning the other cheek takes precedence over protection of the flock. Each must act according to the dictates of his or her conscience, but there’s no clear-cut argument that any major world religion demands absolute pacifism. For example, most scholars of Hinduism suggest that the non-violent doctrine of ahimsa does not require ignoring threats to life or limb. Islam resoundingly endorses self-defense. Sikhs carry ceremonial weapons called Kirpans to symbolize courage, self-defense and readiness. Hebrew Scriptures include fairly detailed outlines for the use of deadly force.
The Dalai Lama famously wrote, “If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.” Although personally opposing violence, Mohandas Gandhi condemned laws that disarmed his people from fighting for independence. And Christian scriptures include both an account of Jesus telling his disciples to buy swords and descriptions of a Second Coming, when enemy combatants will be slain by his sword.
In early American history, churches were vital to communities, and each settler was expected to do his part to protect the parishioners from attack. Many colonial settlements levied fines against worshipers for coming to church services with defective or absent firearms. Church lawns were often the scene for Sunday afternoon competitions and tournaments to sharpen the skills of colonialists.
For readers interested in beefing up church security, it’s important first to check local laws on church carry. Make sure your church isn’t acting as a day care or a school. Promote a dialogue among the church and clergy. Network with other worshipers to form plans. Periodically volunteer to stand watch outside the service. Greeters and ushers often join services and leave church foyers completely unwatched, allowing open access to would-be perpetrators. Learn to watch for concerning behaviors. Train for worst-case scenarios.
Whatever day and in whatever way, many readers keep the Sabbath. It’s not a question of if but when and where. When preventative measures fail, being caught without the means to defend yourself, even in a house of worship, is a mistake you might only get to make once.
*Does your church have a security team? Are you looking for help in getting one started? Did you know the USCCA offers group memberships to church security teams? Learn more!