SALT LAKE CITY — 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.
40 days a sanctuary
Dallas Drake, a criminologist who tracks church shootings at the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis, acknowledges that church shootings are increasing but finds the idea of arming church members as a deterrent “a little bit concerning," since in nearly half of church shootings, the shooter was affiliated with the church.
That was the case in Fallon, Nevada, where a church member killed one person at a Mormon service and injured another last month. The victim reportedly greeted the shooter before the worship service.
LDS Church policy, moreover, prohibits the possession of lethal weapons on church property by anyone other than law enforcement officers and says, “Churches are dedicated for the worship of God and as havens from the cares and concerns of the world.”
Other churches have made similar stances, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), which in 2017 encouraged churches to post signs that read "No Guns in God's House" and said only active law enforcement officers could bring guns on church property.
In trying to make their sanctuaries gun-free zones, modern churches seek to provide a haven for their members, but their early counterparts did even more, said Elizabeth Allen, an associate professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, who is writing a book on sanctuary law in medieval England.
From at least the 12th through the 16th centuries, churches were not only a sanctuary for worshippers, but also for lawbreakers. If a fugitive could make his way onto church grounds, his protection was guaranteed for at least 40 days, regardless of the crime of which the person was accused. The law even required that the fugitive be provided with food, Allen said, and made the fugitive's protection “a sacred duty.”
After 40 days, the fugitive was expected to confess to his crime and then go into exile. At the peak of the practice, in the 1300s and 1400s, more than 500 people sought sanctuary in churches every year, Allen said.
Such magnanimity, however, diminished in 1623, when King James announced that felons could no longer enjoy sanctuary in churches, and today the term is largely symbolic.
But the idea of the church as a place that rejects anything related to violence persists in people such as the Rev. James Atwood, a longtime hunter who became impassioned about gun control after one of his parishioners was fatally shot by a teenager who obtained a handgun from a friend at a bowling alley.
In his books "Gundamentalism" and "America and Its Guns, a Theological Expose," Atwood rues "the caveman's impulse" to protect oneself by killing others "instead of pursuing the strong biblical admonitions to avoid the shedding of blood." He says that while horrific shootings, such as those in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sutherland Springs, Texas, remain fixed in the public's minds, the odds of getting shot at a church are minuscule. Mass shootings — the ones that make headlines — comprise 2 percent of shootings in the country, he said.
"That doesn't mean I'm going to be Pollyanna and think that something can't happen, but I'm going to put my basic trust in God and look at the numbers," said Atwood, who is active in The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
The Center for Homicide Research counted 139 deadly church shootings, with 185 total victims, between 1980 and 2005, its first wave of research. (That number, however, includes 74 people who died at the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, in 1993.) The shootings occurred in 26 states, with the most in Texas (25, plus those who died in Waco) and 12 each in California and Wisconsin. There were none in Utah.
Even if an assailant does open fire in a church, Atwood said it's unlikely that armed worshippers firing back will save lives. He cites a study of New York City police officers' proficiency on a firing range that found only about 18 percent accuracy when fire was being returned. He also notes that Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL featured in the movie "American Sniper," was an accomplished sniper who was armed when he was killed by a fellow veteran on a shooting range.
"We think if we have a gun, we're going to be protected, but it's a myth," Atwood said.
A special vulnerability
Drake, at the Center for Homicide Research, noted that churches are vulnerable to violence, not only because of their open doors, but because their message of hope is attractive to troubled people, a small percentage of whom may turn violent.
“Churches tend to draw people who need help, whether they’re impoverished, they have mental illness, or domestic violence; that’s part of the role and the position of the church,” he said.
In the center’s first wave of data collection, which spanned the years 1980 to 2005, 5 percent of the shooters had been rejected as a member by the church; 12 percent felt excluded. Additionally, nearly one-quarter of the shootings involved domestic violence.
The research done by Drake and his colleagues involved shootings anywhere on church grounds (to include parking lots and fellowship halls), and it only involved churches, not temples or mosques, which have also seen violence. These incidents include the wounding of two men at a Los Angeles synagogue in 2009, the fatal shooting of six at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee in 2012, and the killing of nine at a Buddhist temple in Arizona in 1991.
Drake and his colleagues are working on a new analysis of shootings in subsequent years, and it appears the incidence has doubled since their initial report.
“It’s clearly something that’s occurring more often, and we need to be concerned about these kinds of things,” Drake said.
The center does not take a stand about what should be done, but Drake notes that even the most well-intentioned gun owner can accidentally discharge a gun. "We like to think there's a safe place, but there's not," he said. "If you are a church that decides to have loaded handguns in church, accidents can happen. There have been many cases of handguns accidentally discharged in restrooms."
Last year, a Tennessee man accidentally shot himself and his wife at a gun-safety talk at his church.
Jimmy Meeks, the retired police officer who now conducts Sheepdog Seminars, believes in taking aggressive measures to protect yourself and your loved ones, even if you aren't personally comfortable with guns.
"There are various ways to fight these guys. Not everything is solved with a gun," he said.
In fact, in one incident in 1988 in Kansas, church members fought off an assailant after one member threw a hymnal at the shooter while he was reloading.81 comments on this story
But he does urge churches to consider protection by professionals if they can afford it and applauds Texas for passing a law last year that allows churches to establish their own security forces composed of church members.
“We’re not saying you have to have a gun at all. But if you want to stop these killers, though, and they’re coming with a gun, you need equal firepower or more," he said. “You never want to make your church all about security, but no church should allow any threat to stop them in their mission.”