Are Churches Really Safer When Worshipers Carry Guns?

Connie Peterson stands outside the Salt Lake Christian Center where she attends church in Millcreek on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. Peterson has a concealed gun during worship. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)
Connie Peterson stands outside the Salt Lake Christian Center where she attends church in Millcreek on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. Peterson has a concealed gun during worship. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Connie Peterson is an accountant whose work requires a calculator, not a weapon. But she doesn’t go anywhere without her gun — not even to church.

“My firearm is part of me,” Peterson says, explaining why she is armed when worshipping each Sunday at Salt Lake Christian Center.

Peterson, who is a licensed firearm instructor, believes that her knowledge and shooting skill could help to protect fellow church members from deadly violence like the July 22 attack at a service of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fallon, Nevada.

But hers is a controversial position, not only because of the deep divide among Americans on gun control, but also because Peterson takes her gun to a place that has historically been a sanctuary from violence — not only for law-abiding citizens, but even for felons.

There’s also the issue of whether people of faith should be shooting others in a place of worship, given that an intruder might be mentally ill or a juvenile, and there’s always the risk of killing innocents in a chaotic situation.

“Guns and weapons do not belong in God’s house. Guns are not going to protect us. In fact, when a gun is present, people are at risk,” said the Rev. James E. Atwood, a retired Presbyterian pastor and nationally recognized gun control advocate.

With violence at places of worship on the rise, however, businesses that coach churches on security are increasingly busy, warning pastors and laity that their welcoming environs and open doors make them a “soft target” for shooters. Some security consultants even teach worshippers that they shouldn’t close their eyes in prayer in a public place.

But while guns are becoming a part of some churches’ security plans, they aren’t the only thing can bring an attacker down. Sometimes a well-aimed hymnal works.

‘Love always protects’

“There is nothing sacred about a church building,” says former police officer Jimmy Meeks, sounding more like a SWAT team member than the ordained minister he is.

Meeks works with Sheepdog Safety Seminars, which seeks to “awaken the protective instincts that reside in the hearts of all men (and many women)” through aggressive security measures, which can include well-trained people with guns, either hired or volunteer.

Meeks says the church of God is not a building, but, rather, the people who gather within it to worship, and the Bible is clear that the people have a moral obligation to protect their lives and the lives of others. A human “sheepdog” protects the flock from predators, Sheepdog seminars teach, quoting the Christian apostle Paul, “Love always protects.”

“God has no problem with you protecting innocent people from being slaughtered,” Meeks said. “Faith doesn’t mean you do nothing.”

Citing escalating statistics about violent deaths at places of worship — 114 in 2017 — Meeks said many people justify passivity by reciting Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” and believing that if the worst were to happen, they would die a martyr.

“But that’s not what’s happening. Only 6 to 9 percent of church shooters were motivated by religious persecution. Ninety-one percent of these guys are mad at a family member, their wife or something along those lines. They’re not killing people for their faith.

“Dying for a cause is what makes you a martyr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a martyr. Being gunned down in your church because the gunman is angry at someone, that doesn’t make you a martyr,” Meeks said.

Peterson has no intention of being a victim or a martyr. The Salt Lake City woman became a gun owner 18 years ago and is active with a group called The Well Armed Woman, where she learned to shoot and eventually became an instructor certified by the National Rifle Association.

Using a holster, she carries a gun on her at all times, even in a church pew. “If something happens, I can be my own first responder,” Peterson said, adding that most people are reactive after a shooting instead of being proactive by getting the education and tools to protect themselves in advance.

“Nobody wants to be in a situation where there’s a shooting, but there’s nothing wrong with walking around with a tool to protect your life and the life of those you love and care about, whether you’re in your home or in your church,” she said.

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SOURCE: Jennifer Graham
Deseret News