Commentary
By Jamie D. Aten 11-14-2017

The horrible tragedy at First Baptist Church in Texas has sent ripples of fear through churches across the United States. Along with grief and concern over gun violence, the attack also resurfaced an idea: Should we increase security at — or even arm members of — our own churches?

I’ve dedicated my career to helping churches prepare for disasters, including mass shootings. And I believe that responding to the Texas church mass shooting with an arms race does more to protect fear than it does to protect our churches.

As founder of the country’s first faith-based academic disaster research center, I’ve written extensively on "disaster ministry” and collaborated on the first in-depth studies ever conducted on the psychology of religion and mass shootings. I've also provided psychosocial support for humanitarian aid workers serving in armed conflicts, and created tools and resources that have helped communities like Newtown, Conn., heal after mass shootings.

From this perspective, here are three suggestions I want to offer the U.S. church now:

1. Any changes in church preparedness and security are only part of the equation to making our churches more safe.

I’m encouraged by how seriously some churches are thinking about security issues and taking safety steps. These include training their congregations how to seek shelter and evacuate dangerous situations. (FEMA has active shooter courses and other resources that can serve as useful guides.) Other churches are training church teams to recognize potential threats. Security experts also recommend that churches reach out to local emergency managers and law enforcement for guidance. These types of solutions recognize the reality of the risk without compromising the nature of what a church is created to be: an open and welcoming community while also being wise.

But in the aftermath of the Texas church shooting, I’ve struggled in discussions about church preparedness tools. Increasing church security will help save additional lives — but as long as a mass shooter is able to approach our church doors with an assault rifle or similarly modified weapon, we will have failed to fully prepare.

Preparedness isn’t just about being ready to respond when the worst happens. It’s about doing what we can to try to reduce the likelihood of the worst from happening at all. There are a number of measures that experts and public opinion agree would address the underlying causes that lead to recurring gun violence. These include tighter background checks and restrictions on gun sales, expanded mental health treatment, and bans on certain high-capacity and semiautomatic weapons.

Until sensible gun laws like these are passed, I’m afraid our preparedness efforts will more often than not resemble trying to fight a house fire with a garden hose. 

2. We have to change our affinity for gun culture.

I recently appeared on Moody Radio’s "Equipped with Chris Brooks" program to discuss how people can help in the wake of the Sutherland Springs church shooting. Numerous callers expressed a desire to arm members of the congregation. And in an interview with Fox News, Dallas evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress said his church members — of which he estimates “a quarter to a half…are concealed-carry” — would prevent a mass shooting from occurring in his church.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to such a view, wrote Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post, including political affiliation, high rates of personal gun ownership, and an understanding of gun violence as a result of human sin. Everyone wants to believe that in active shooter situations, they’d be the “good guy with a gun” who takes down the shooter. (This may be particularly true of Christians — a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey showed that 59 percent of white evangelicals oppose stricter gun laws — seven points higher than the nation as a whole.) But this myth protects our own fear more than it does our churches. Shooters often walk into these situations wearing vests or carrying much heavier artillery. And untrained bystanders shooting guns can create more chaos and confusion.

“How do we balance the relative risk against the very nature and the purpose of a house of worship?," former FEMA head W. Craig Fugate asked me recently. "We can make our house of worship secure, but does that compromise our primary mission? …To what degree must we deal with this at the front door of a house of worship, versus looking at this more holistically across the community?”

3. If we truly want to mitigate and prevent harm, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations with each other about gun issues.

Over the years I’ve side-stepped heated topics like gun laws because I thought staying away from hot-button issues would allow me to reach more people with a message of preparedness. But I’ve come to realize that silence only makes schism wider between Christians, in public and in our pews. It’s not disrespectful to the memory of the victims and the suffering community to do what we can to prevent this from happening to more people and more communities. It’s what we owe them and each other.

It’s time we come together to support reform of sensible gun laws that would minimize access to the kinds of firearms that make attacks of this scale possible. In an international comparison of mass shootings, the New York Times reported that the very presence of guns appears to directly lead to more gun violence. “A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, for instance,” Max Fisher and Josh Keller wrote, “but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.”

In this moment, we must help our churches better prepare for mass shootings. But if we really want to prioritize church security, we have to address our gun problem, too. It is good to be ready for the worst. It is better — and shows more love of our neighbor — to do all that we can to prevent the worst from happening at all.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert. He is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten, or see his work at jamieaten.com.

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