On June 17, 2015, a shooter opened fire at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine victims, including the pastor. The crime appears to have been motivated by hate.
The incident is tragic, jarring, and almost unbelievable. Sadly, even if mass shootings are rare, instances of violent crime in religious organizations remain a threatening reality. Carl Chinn knows that only too well.
Two decades ago, Chinn was an employee at Focus on the Family. Hired as a building engineer for the ministry, Chinn recalls thinking emergency readiness and security measures were unimportant back then. That changed, however, when Chinn found himself involved in a standoff with an angry gunman who took hostages at the ministry in 1996.
Chinn began studying violent incidents at ministries and eventually started educating faith-based operators and law-enforcement groups on the subject of ministry security. He was directly involved in implementing a security program for New Life Church in Colorado Springs in 2005. Just two years later, he was part of the security team that stopped an active shooter there.
Each year, Chinn releases a report of violence in faith-based organizations. As much as we like to think of our churches as somehow protected from or less vulnerable to violent crime, the statistics don’t back that up. Our houses of worship and faith-based organizations—our sacred ground—aren’t shielded from the harsh realities of violence in American culture. In fact, according to Chinn’s report and the latest government statistics, twice as many people die in violent incidents on religious property as die in school shootings. Why aren’t we more aware of this fact?
Chinn’s report includes the following statistics on violence in faith-based organizations in 2014:
- 176 deadly force incidents were documented at churches and faith-based organizations in the U.S. This passed the highest figures on violence from 2012 by 37 incidents, a jarring 21 percent increase. Last year also saw a near record total of violent deaths: 74. The most recorded from such incidents was 76 deaths in 2012.
- 52 of the 74 violent deaths (70 percent) were innocent victims. The other 22 deaths, or 30 percent, were suicides or perpetrators killed in the act.
- There were 14 suicides. Unfortunately, 8 other victims died at the hands of those committing their own suicides.
- The first violent incident of 2014 occurred on January 1. The Rev. Eric Freed was brutally beaten to death at his Sacred Heart Church in Eureka, California.
- The last violent incident of 2014 occurred on December 30. On that day, leaders of Living Water Fellowship in Kissimmee, Florida, gathered to dismiss an employee from his staff position. The disgruntled employee pulled out a gun and began shooting at the pastor. The pastor protected himself and the others in the room by shooting back, which disabled the attacker and stopped the attack.
- There were 24 incidents in which the pastor or priest of the church was directly involved. Of those leaders, 6 died in the altercation or committed suicide.
- 11 children under the age of 18 were killed (or their bodies found) on church property. The youngest was 2-year-old Joshua Carter who was killed when an enraged woman intentionally drove into a crowd outside of the New Union Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 27.
- There were 4 documented attempted abductions of children.
- 18.2 percent of incidents were related to domestic violence.
- 26.8 percent of incidents were violent robberies.
- 29 of the attackers were somehow associated with the church (as a current or past member, employee, or volunteer).
- 22 of the deceased victims (42.3 percent) were affiliated with the church, with 11 being employees or volunteers.
Though the statistics for church violence are sobering, there is also reason to hope. Awareness and training have directly contributed to faith-based organizations’ abilities to handle incidents when they do arise.
One example from the last year occurred at Seattle Pacific University on June 5, 2014. “The quick and decisive actions of students stopped a murderer shortly after he killed only one student,” notes Chinn. “The Seattle Pacific murder testifies that faith-based organizations are increasing their readiness. Ten years ago one might have said that the biggest need regarding this subject would be for awareness of the danger and an acceptance of the need for intentional security. Today the biggest need [in combating this risk] is that of effective faith-based security operations training.”
“If we fail to train, we are really saying, ‘It will never happen here,’” says Chinn. But according to statistics, the risk of violence in the church is all too real.
In light of the Charleston shooting, Church Law & Tax has made its article “Responding to an Active-Shooter Incident” available for free this week. We encourage churches to print a copy of this article and use it to implement their own training.
Carl Chinn also made the 2015 statistics available to ManagingYourChurch.com.
Other resources are also available through Church Law & Tax:
- “Stopping a Shooter”by Richard Hammar
- “Securing the Faithful”: What one church did right when a gunman showed up in its parking lot
- Confronting Gun Violence at Church (a downloadable resource)
- Does Your Church Need a Security Guard? (a downloadable resource)
You can learn more about Carl Chinn, church crime history, and violence statistics on his website, carlchinn.com.
This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."
Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.