It’s been one year since a gunman killed 11 congregants and injured six individuals, including four police officers, at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s been nearly two years since the mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that left 26 dead. And in 2016, four houses of worship experienced fatal shootings.
Shootings at churches, synagogues and mosques are not a recent phenomenon in the United States. The Associated Press compiled a list of 15 shootings taking place at houses of worship dating back to 2012. And, of course, there are older incidents, too.
The emergence of religious sites as targets has triggered some congregations to elevate their security measures, such as incorporating professional police training. In fact, it’s become somewhat of a niche industry, with entrepreneurial law enforcement professionals stepping up to address the need. The AP interviewed David Riggall, a Texas police officer who also owns a company that trains church volunteers as security guards.
“Ten years ago, this industry was not a thing,” he told reporters. “Every time the news comes on and there’s another shooting in a school or church or something like that, the phone starts ringing.”
Riggall trains church-goers to assess threats, initiate de-escalation techniques and employ tactical skills, including using a weapon and how to apply first aid. Participants must complete 70 hours of training to become state-licensed guards. Many program graduates become employees of the company, which contracts with places of worship to provide security.
Many churches have benefitted from the training and resources offered by companies like Riggall’s.
For example, Ava Assembly of God, a 300-member Pentecostal church in Missouri, has its own trained all-volunteer security team composed of 18 church members who attend services and activities in shifts. During Sunday morning services, two team members are stationed at the church’s main entrance and one member is positioned at the front of the church, near the pastor. On Wednesdays, one security member is on site for teen and adult prayer groups. Each security team member carries their own handgun while on church premises.
“Most of us are average Joe guys who hunt and fish and want to look out for others,” a member of the team told reporters with NBC News. “We have administrators, farmers [and] school teachers on our security team.”
But the group of “average Joes” look to the leadership of Trampus Taylor, the police chief in Sparta, Missouri, who established the security team.
“Fifty years ago, you could say no guns should be allowed in church, but times have changed,” Taylor told reporters. “Shootings happen everywhere.”
Taylor, who is a certified law enforcement instructor for Missouri, runs regular practice drills with the security team, including tactical gun training sessions. On top of those sessions, the group decided earlier this year to undergo specialized simulation training with Ozark Shoot, a security group that trains church security teams and is run by 48-year law enforcement veteran Michael Deans.
While there are many LEO-owned security organizations poised to take makeshift church security groups under their wings, there are others in law enforcement who caution religious organizations from adopting a do-it-yourself approach to arming security volunteers. For one thing, laws regarding carrying firearms into religious buildings vary among states. More importantly, former FBI agent Brad Orsini, who now serves as security director for The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, wants people to recognize their limitations in these roles.
“Carrying a firearm is an awesome responsibility. Because you have the ability to have a carry concealed permit does not make you a security expert,” he said to AP. “Because you have a firearm doesn’t necessarily mean you should be carrying it at the church on the weekend.”