Should Your Pastor Pack Heat?

There has been a rise in random violence not only in public places such as public schools and government agencies, but “softer” targets such as sporting or entertainment events, private schools, churches etc. According to Mass Shooting Tracker, there were 372 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870. In 2016 the number was up to 382 mass shootings.

In 2017, we were all shaken by the mass shooting on October 1, 2017 in Las Vegas where Stephen Paddock killed 59 people and injured another 546 persons attending an outdoor concert from his perch high up in an overlooking hotel. Paddock had scoped out Millennial Park in Chicago earlier, considering the site for his killing spree. We cannot forget the gunman who stormed a small Baptist church on November 5, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas killing 26 people before a neighbor engaged the killer with gunfire and brought the situation under control.

In response to these threats of random violence, some churches have begun to arm themselves, like the River Church in Tampa, Florida. A sign on every door reads:

Please know this is not a gun free zone—we are heavily armed—any attempt will be dealt with deadly force—yes we are a church and we will protect our people. –The Pastors.

In 2013, Illinois went from a complete ban on public carrying of firearms to a broad concealed carry law. But conceal and carry raises other problems for churches. Recently, in one church, during a church discussion, a husband accidentally shot himself in the hand and his wife in her side.

While many churches will not choose to begin packing heat like the one in Tampa, every church must begin to address the complex legal and theological issues of providing security for their church’s staff, members and guests while remaining an inviting and welcoming house of worship. To that end, just as every church should have a child safety policy, so too, they should have a written security policy dealing not only with the possibility of random violence, but medical issues and “acts of God” such as fire, tornadoes, etc.

Perhaps the best place to begin is to form a security team to study, recommend, and implement a security policy and procedures for the church. In forming the team, an inventory should be taken of those in the church with experience or expertise in the security field. Are there any policemen, firefighters, military personal, or others involved with civil defense within the congregation? Additionally, the local police should be consulted. Most police departments have been trained and are developing safety plans, emergency policies and protocol and they will form a vital link in the church’s security plan which should be designed in coordination with the police.

Also, a member of the church familiar with insurance is a vital addition to the team. From a liability standpoint, should an incident occur, the issue in the resulting investigation or lawsuit will be ones of negligence or gross negligence and the question of liability will be focused on the precautions, training and actions of personnel at the time of the incident. Thus, the person familiar with insurance is needed to review the church’s insurance coverage and to interact with the insurance provider to get the needed coverage and to be sure whatever security policy is implemented is within the parameters covered by insurance.

Depending on the circumstances and the determination of the church leadership, the team may decide to hire security personnel or to recruit volunteers from within its own ranks to provide security. The use of off-duty police is often the most prudent course since they are trained and have the requisite experience, licensing and are generally acting as police officers, not church employees, if an incident should occur.

If the church, under the Illinois concealed-carry laws, does look to its own members, crucial questions for the security team and leadership to answer will include;

1) If the church has liability insurance, does it cover the policy to allow armed members?

2) When a security officer, congregant, member or active bystander uses some means of force to handle a situation and causes innocent bystander injury or death, what is the liability of the church?

3) Are board members personally covered by the church’s insurance?

4 ) What are policy requirements for weapons training and if authorized, how frequent do they occur, and whose approval is needed?

If the church decides to implement safety precautions that include allowing certain individuals to carry firearms on church property, then it must carefully set out the guidelines for that security. The security policy must clearly define when the weapon is being carried, with the possible use of deadly force, and who is authorized for the security of the church. Needless to say, training should be a part of the policy since the more training those who are carrying guns have had with regard to the use of the firearms, the more the church can say it was acting reasonably.

With regard to insurance coverage, volunteers on the security team may not be covered under the church’s insurance policy. In that event, volunteers can often obtain additional conceal and carry coverage which includes legal defense. It is prudent to require additional coverage for each volunteer that will carry a weapon on the security team. The church should set the standard and make sure that the insurance is in place and renewed.

The policy and training should also demand careful documentation of everything the church is doing by way of training, licensing, background checks, updates, etc. The process should be updated on a regular basis. If there is an incident, these will be crucial to show that you were not negligent. Attorneys at Mauck & Baker are available to help your church implement the policy that God wants for it.