WHEAT RIDGE, Colorado—Since Sutherland Springs, Vince Becraft prays with one eye open.
“Too bad there wasn’t a good guy in there with a gun,” says the Marine, “All of those people might still be alive.”
Last month’s horrific shootings at First Baptist Church which left 25 unsuspecting worshipers dead has kick-started a tough conversation in America: do guns belong in a place of worship?
Becraft, head of security in his own church, believes they do. He was one of 300 concerned worshipers who attended a community meeting at Wheat Ridge, Colorado’s United Methodist Church Tuesday night organized by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado.
“We feel like sitting ducks when the doors are open,” said Mary Jo Long, who joined the packed pews at the “Protecting Houses of Worship” symposium. “This used to be a place of sanctuary for us. Not anymore.”
Colorado, along with Texas and roughly 25 other jurisdictions, is at the forefront of a national debate on whether places of worship can continue to be open and welcoming while, at the same time, prepare for the worst. The Colorado judicial district started these faith-based summits last January in response to the 2005 Charleston shooting.
PHOW, as these forums are called, provides a powwow for anyone who is interested in church security to meet and share ideas with representatives from the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s office, local law enforcement, the State office of Public Safety, Homeland Security, and faith leaders.
Tuesday night’s conversation quickly turned to guns in church.
“How about a sign on the wall outside saying We Are Armed?” asked one attendee.
Some people in the crowd believe having an armed sentry outside of church and even assigning well-trained volunteers from the congregation to carry guns on the inside would save lives.
“You can have a security plan big enough to choke a mule, but without the right people, you’re sunk,” church security expert Carl Chinn told the crowd.
Chinn speaks from experience. He helped put a security program in place at New Life Church in Colorado Springs several years before a gunman shot and killed two parishioners in a surprise attack a decade ago. Chinn has collected data dating back to 1999 on more than 1,600 "deadly force incidents" at houses of worship in the U.S, including mosques, synagogues, and Sikh temples.
His research shows that 2017 is by far the worst for “deadly force incidents.” Including last month’s Sutherland Springs murders, there have been 109 non-accidental deaths in places of worship. That’s compared to 77 in 2015, the second most fatal year.
Most of the time, violence in places of worship have nothing to do with religion. Chinn found that robberies accounted for more than a quarter of homicides, followed by fights between domestic partners (16 percent) and personal conflicts between people who do not live together (14 percent). Only 10 percent involved mental illness.
The bulk of those incidents happened outside the sanctuary, with about a quarter of them happening inside the building. Chinn said some of those deaths could have been avoided with simple changes, like improving the hardware on exit doors, or involving the entire congregation in active shooter drills.
“If you’re going to allow guns in church, you have to make sure people are well-trained,” said Dilpreet Jammu, President of Colorado Sikhs. “If you had told me five years ago we’d be having this conversation I would have told you you’re nuts.”
Jammu told the crowd that, despite the shock of the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, he keeps his doors open.
The audience took notes from the experts including one suggestion of a warning system much like the Amber Alert which could flag suspicious people and activities. Todd Sandstedt, Supervisory Special Agent from the Colorado Northern Region of the FBI, had three words of advice for the group: Run, Hide or Fight.
Standstedt advised that though most people would think running away from a shooter is a cowardly act, a clean getaway artist can save lives by herding other people out of an exit door and providing incoming police with information on what the shooter looks like. Hiding, says Sandstedt, is the next best thing.
“It’s as simple as diving underneath a pew and waiting it out,” he said. “Play dead.”
One church has already outfitted its daycare with a magnetic fob to keep strangers out.
Geri and Bob Walters said their church, Grand Junction Church of the Nazarene, installed the system when they found that transients visiting to be fed, were also camping out among the pews.
It’s not like Colorado is immune to tragic and unexpected shootings.
“We lost our innocence at Columbine,” Long said of the 1999 murders which jolted the country into realizing that schools were not safe from gun violence. The Aurora theater shooting in the same state made people afraid to go to the movies.
But not everyone champions guns in church. Ryan Miller, who wants to be a minister some day, left the forum determined to worship without fear.
“Jesus turned the other cheek,” said Miller, his hands jammed in his coat pockets. He says he’ll keep his eyes closed when he prays.
“If I get shot in the back of the head, I can talk to God face to face.”