With holiday wreaths and garlands in the background, Steve Billinger stood at the front of Community Christian Church in rural Great Bend last Saturday and showed members how to disarm a gun-wielding assailant. More than two dozen members attended the Barton County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant’s active shooter training.
Churches are considered “soft targets,” relatively unprotected or vulnerable to an attack, Billinger said. But he has been offering training programs for schools, churches and other public spaces since his days on the Kansas Highway Patrol.
“Our goal here is to help you change your mindset,” Billinger told the audience. “You could be anywhere and encounter a violent event.”
Pastor Jon Hembree said church members had talked about receiving active shooter training in the past, but the Nov. 5 shooting at a Baptist church in Texas is what finally prompted them to act. That was the day a man walked into a small church in rural Texas with a military-style rifle, opened fire on parishioners and killed 26 people, wounding several others.
“We hope nothing like that ever happens, but if it were to happen we want to be prepared,” Hembree said.
While the Texas incident was the worst on record, shootings at churches are not new. The Center for Homicide Research developed data on 140 shootings occurring in churches from 1980-2005.
Across the United States, there have been 342 active shooter events this year, as of Dec. 16, Billinger noted. Anyone caught in one should know his or her options.
Ready to act
The congregation at Community Christian Church hardly qualifies as a soft target. Not only does the rural church have its own shooting range, but several members said they’ve undergone training and earned conceal carry permits. In Kansas, anyone 21 years and older who can legally own a firearm can carry one without a permit, but members who have the permits recommend them, in part, because of the training required to earn the license.
Here are some of the tips Billinger shared:
• Be mentally prepared — “Mental preparedness is key to surviving events like this, but most people never think about it,” Billinger said. Mentally rehearse leading others to safety, running, hiding or fighting. Whatever the choice, have a mindset that says, “I survived.”
“If someone walks in the back door — what would you do?” Billinger said. As private property, churches can put up signs banning concealed or open carry, but many churches don’t.
Some churches now have armed security guards; others have ushers at the back to welcome anyone new — and to be aware of what is going on.
Being mentally alert is something to practice regularly, Billinger noted. When walking across a parking lot or into a store, we aware of what is going on around you.
• Have a plan — Schools conduct fire drills and tornado drills on a regular basis, so why not active shooter drills or lockdown drills? Hospitals and schools are becoming more proactive in this regard, Billinger noted. For example, Ellinwood public schools have the SafeDefend system, which can notify police and others to take action in a violent situation. Teachers have access to a special tool box that includes a whistle, collapsible baton, pepper spray, safety vests and tourniquets. If the box is opened, a message is instantly sent to 911 and to the rest of the building.
Families should also have a safety plan that includes where everyone will meet up after an emergency. Smartphone apps such as Find My Friends allows you to easily locate friends and family.
• Run, Hide or Fight — Run if you can. Make a zig-zag dash for an exit and escape. Just be aware that armed officers may be arriving at the same time, so keep your hands visible and follow any officer’s commands.
Or go into lockdown mode. If a shooter is walking through a building looking for targets he — 94 percent of shooters in these cases are male — is likely to bypass a locked door and head for an easier target, Billinger said. “He knows the police are coming.” Put a barrier in front of the door or loop a belt over door handles to hold it shut. Hide as best you can; turn off the lights and silence your phone.
If the best option is to fight, improvise weapons. Use a chair, a book or whatever is at hand. Rush the attacker as a group. “Save your life by any means necessary,” he said.
• Think about what comes next — Have a trauma kit; think about reunification (finding everyone) after an event, and recovery.
“It’s kind of sad that we have to think this way,” Billinger acknowledged. “I hope this never happens to you, but be prepared. And Merry Christmas.”
Bob LaPierre, an elder at the church, said the training was intended to make people more aware of plans already in place, but they also talked about new ideas after the program.
“We want to talk about this; we want to have more of a plan,” he said. If the congregation ever finds it needs to disarm an active shooter, people shouldn’t hesitate he said. But, “Do all of these things in a loving and Christian way.”