When I was five years old I had a favorite T-shirt. It had a very adorable cartoon person wearing a blue suit and a red cape like Superman’s, and there was a “K” emblazoned on the chest. Super K. I also had a bedroom on the second floor of our house, and just outside my window there was a small ledge and a large pine tree, and I had great grandiose plans that if my house caught on fire, I would grab my Super K T-shirt, climb out my bedroom window and shimmy down the pine tree to safety. You don’t know how many times I rehearsed that plan. In my head. Sadly, I never actually rehearsed it, and fortunately, I never needed to carry my plan out.
But I had a plan, and the person with the best plan usually wins.
First Sergeant Terry Mills of the West Virginia State Police Academy addressed a crowd of fifty people gathered at his home church, Forrest Burdette Memorial UMC in Hurricane, WV, on Saturday, February 24. The topic, which Mills teaches around the state of West Virginia, was how you can respond in an active shooter situation, and one of the take-home points from his presentation was that shooters usually have a plan, and they figure that you probably don’t.
First up in Sgt. Mills’ presentation was what to do if a shooter comes in to where you are: Run, Hide, Fight. In that order. If you can get away, get away, right away. If you hear a gunshot in the building, run. Don’t sit there wondering if you should do something. Don’t shut your computer down, don’t wait for the microwave to finish, run. Put distance between you and the gunman as quickly as you can. Seconds count.
If you can’t run anywhere, find a good place to hide. Dropping to the floor or curling up in a ball is not hiding, it’s making a small, unmoving target. If you can get into a room that locks, great. Turn the lights out and silence your phone. If you can put something in front of the door to block it, do that too. And if you’re hiding with several people, begin to make a plan. The shooter is not expecting that.
That was the first quarter of the workshop. Run. Hide. If you have opportunity to do this, do it. And if you can’t run or hide, if opportunity demands it, then it’s time to fight. Sgt. Mills spent about half of our time together talking about this part, and about some advantages that you have on your home turf. Part of fighting is just distracting and disorienting the gunman. Throw something, anything at him. A hymnal, a hat, a handful of pens – it doesn’t matter what, you’re just interrupting his thought process and buying a second or two. By the way, a fire extinguisher makes a fine improvised weapon because of its bulk and its contents.
Mills then demonstrated several simple but effective ways of disarming a gunman, reminding us that we could allow a gunman to shoot us all, or we can engage the gunman and perhaps stop him. I know I couldn’t accurately tell you how to do what Mills demonstrated, but Sgt. Mills and the WVSP Academy are willing to offer this presentation for you, free of charge. Mills demonstrated several ways of removing a gunman’s pistol or rifle, and walked us through scenarios involving two people subduing a gunman. And remember, the one with the best plan wins.
Run. Hide. Interrupt the shooter’s thinking by throwing things. If necessary, engage the gunman by fighting. These are things that increase your chance of survival in an assault.
There was another important part of Sgt. Mills’ presentation, and that had to do not with responding to a gunman, but with measures that churches can take to prevent an assault. Shootings at churches often happen as an escalation of a domestic dispute, and churches have a number of features that make them vulnerable to shooters. We are bearers of Christ, and we want to be welcoming and to have an open-door policy, therefore, churches need to plan ahead, have security measures in place, and have protocols that ensure, as best as possible, the safety of people of all ages, from our seniors to our children. Churches should lock most entrances after the worship service has begun, for example, and station greeters near entrances that remain unlocked. If there are hallways or classrooms, it’s ideal to have those monitored. Drop-off and pick-up procedures for children must be thorough, ensuring that only authorized persons can pick a child up, and ensuring also that childcare workers and volunteers are appropriately vetted. Church members and staff members alike should notify a member of the church security or pastoral team if they have a Protection From Abuse order. And parking lot attendants can be trained to anticipate potentially troublesome interactions and to de-escalate them as well. Imagine a distressed individual approaching the church, intending to shoot an ex-wife they believe is inside. Now imagine a parking lot attendant intercepting the man and saying something like, “You look like you might need someone to talk to,” and then ministering to a man in distress. It’s possible a shooting could be prevented in such a way, if a church has such a plan in place. Remember, again, that a shooter is not anticipating that their plan will be interrupted.
The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and in a hurting world where too many turn to lethal violence, the message of the gospel is vital. How we prepare for and respond to worldly violence makes a difference. Make a plan for yourself to survive, and make a plan for your church to witness.
First Sergeant Mills can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling the West Virginia State Police Academy at (304) 766-5800. Contact your District Superintendent’s office for the form to get background checks for your childcare workers and volunteers.
Kerry W. Bart was ordained an elder in 2005 and has been serving at Barboursville First UMC since 2013. Kerry is a member of the West Virginia Conference Communications team, as the Western District Representative.