McDONOUGH — Henry County Sheriff Keith McBrayer took time to share his thoughts with the Herald about keeping congregations safe before his March 5 workshop for church leaders. Because so many people saw the video of the Dec. 29 White Settlement, Texas, church shooting, McBrayer said, there’s increased interest in armed security for places of worship. Three people, including the gunman, died in the Texas attack. The armed church security member who killed the gunman was awarded Texas’ first Governors’ Medal of courage.
Closer to home, a 16-year-old girl was arrested in November for allegedly plotting to attack an African Methodist Episcopal church in Gainesville, prompting heightened security at metro Atlanta AME churches. In May, Hindu temples in Clayton and Forsyth counties were robbed.
However, “church security” covers much more than the highly unlikely event of an armed attack during services. The Henry County workshop for church leaders started in 2009, McBrayer said, after an incident he witnessed in a local church that he declined to name.
“It was this suspicious person on a Easter Sunday that walked in the church,” McBrayer said. “He had a bandana over his face, walked in, was mumbling and pointing at people...during the church service.” McBrayer said the church called police, who escorted the man out. “He was a mental patient that had got off of some bus and was lost. But it would have been so easy for that to be a very bad situation that really nobody knew what to do (about it) or how to handle it.”
McBrayer’s sample manual covers all kinds of emergencies for churches — for example, tornadoes — and less-considered measures like making sure someone is posted outside the counting room after an offering is taken. As for armed security teams, McBrayer said, state law gives churches the power to say whether they do or do not want weapons on the grounds.
The Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014, which was backed by the Georgia Baptist Convention but opposed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, prohibits anyone who does not have a Weapons Carry License from carrying weapons on church grounds. However, that alone does not give gun owners permission to pack in the pews:
♦ If a church wants to allow license holders to pack on premises, the “governing body or authority” must take action to allow that.
♦ A church that allows license holders to carry firearms can request that gun owners conceal their weapons; however, it cannot force them if they prefer open carry.
♦ If a church does not want any weapons on its grounds, it does not have to take any action at all—the assumption is that weapons are forbidden.
♦ If the church has an elementary or secondary school on its grounds, no one except law enforcement officers may carry on site.
Asked whether he had any concerns about some people being a little too eager to strap up for services, McBrayer said, “Very much. That’s the reason I think that it needs to be a security team that is trained. It has rules and regulations. It can’t be the Wild West. And in that situation it has to be a group of people that know their assignments, that they know what their job is.”
McBrayer emphasized the need for security teams to be trained.
“It’s better if you can have law enforcement or retired law enforcement or military or some background,” he said. “But if you have a need for more than you have, then at least someone with a carry permit. And with good training.” While some armed church members may be eager to join a security team, “I think that you definitely need training because you’ve got to take the liability off the church....whatever the appropriate training would be.”
However, no standards exist that define “appropriate training” for armed church security. Private church security businesses offer training, generally aimed at Christian churches, but the industry is not regulated and is not necessarily interfaith.
For people who are morally opposed to carrying firearms or congregations that do not allow weapons on site, McBrayer points out that you don’t have to be armed to make an important contribution to church security. “You could have someone that has no desire to be involved with anything with a weapon, but they can still sit in a room somewhere where they’re monitoring cameras.”
Even though McBrayer says a house of worship “should be the safest place anybody goes,” when people close their eyes to pray, “maybe somebody else needs to keep their eyes open.”
Resources♦ FEMA Resources to Protect Your House of Worship www.fema.gov/faith-resources
♦ Southern Baptist Convention Resources for Church Safety and Security https://bit.ly/36SUgzb
♦ United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Synagogue Safety https://bit.ly/387dJMZ
♦ Council on American-Islamic Relations Best Practices for Mosque and Community Safety https://bit.ly/36RpGWM
♦ Hindu American Foundation HAF, The Law, and You https://bit.ly/2FUCsrz
♦ Unitarian Universalist Association Building Safety and Security in Congregations https://bit.ly/2NFKGbJ
♦ Catholic Mutual Group Church Security https://bit.ly/36UyA63