A Maryland sheriff reached out to a few churches to gauge interest in a training session on how to react if a mass gunman entered their house of worship.
Sixty people signed up, but on the day of the training, 120 attended in the standing-room-only basement of a sheriff’s office training facility about 60 miles north of Washington. The training wasn’t new, but after shootings at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, a mosque in Quebec City and last month at a Texas church, officials are seeing a heightened concern for safety at places of worship – a place that usually brings a sense of comfort and peace for congregants.
Margaret Blye, 77, said she came to the training out of a sense of fear after a gunman fatally shot 26 people on a Sunday morning at a rural Texas church.
“We’re scared,” said Blye, who attends Millers United Methodist Church in Manchester, Md. “You’re sitting in church on Sundays thinking, anyone could come right in the door and do what he did to all those nice people and children.”
Law enforcement agencies have long offered similar trainings to hospitals, schools, businesses and community groups. Now more police departments, including those in Montgomery and Queen Anne’s counties in Maryland, and Prince William County, Virginia, are starting to offer additional sessions geared to churches. A program in Prince William is called “Worship Watch.”
Most of the program’s focus is on teaching people to think about three possible actions to take – run, hide or fight – in active-shooter scenarios. Previously, law enforcement typically advised those involved to stay put, not take action and call 911.
Many officials now encourage people to think about how they would react before an incident happens. The change, security experts said, is a result of law enforcement realizing situations unfold so quickly that people need tools to react. In most places of worship, people have their backs to doors and wouldn’t see a gunman approaching.
“Whether it’s a bike path, schools, movie theater or a church, these soft targets are more difficult to protect, and it has an impact on Americans’ freedoms to go to public places,” said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing policy think tank. “People feel more vulnerable.”
Wexler compared the current safety training in churches to that of the 1950s. Back then, he said, “we were training people to hide in shelters if there were bombs. Now people are being trained on how to deal with mass murderers, even in churches.”
At the recent two-hour training offered by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, officials gave tips to the audience, which included organ players, pastors, clergy, choir directors, ushers, church trustees and secretaries, along with Sunday school teachers.
If a gunman enters a church, they were told to throw a barrage of hymnals at him or stab him in the shin with a letter opener. Those little pencils in the back of each pew? Use them to stab the gunman in the neck.
“I realize I’m asking people who preach compassion, love and peace to pick up a pen and try to stop a shooter if you have the opportunity,” said Sgt. Michael Zepp, who led the training and oversees the sheriff’s SWAT team and major crimes unit.
But, he said, it’s the reality of the times.
“You can be a saint, and you can be a sinner,” he said.
To be sure, Zepp said while some of the tips might sound trivial, they should be thought of as an interruption. Throwing a hymnal at a shooter, he said, “may not stop him but it may limit the casualties, and it’s better than sitting there waiting to get killed.”
Security experts and law enforcement officials say the chances of someone being a mass-shooting victim are far less than, say, a deadly traffic-related crash.
Zepp, who served nine years as a soldier in the U.S. Army, said he understands how hard it is to preach peace and nonviolence while also listening to tips on how to stop a gunman.
“Most of us spend an hour a week at what we think is the safest place we could ever be,” Zepp said, referring to places of worship. “But there’s no peace anywhere, anymore.”