Iowa churches boost security after Texas shooting

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The shooting in Texas this month is being called the deadliest church massacre in U.S. history. Now some religious leaders want to make sure that record is never broken.

One idea seems to dominate gun policy discussions after tragedies — banning citizens from buying and possessing certain firearms. It’s a meaningful debate, but the last several years have shown us it’s not going anywhere with this Congress.

Given the laws we have, there are ways to deter gun violence. We’re forced to respond to the world as it is, not as we want it to be.

Ignoring that reality makes as much sense as leaving your car unlocked because you think stealing is wrong, or refusing to buy flood insurance because you believe the federal government should limit carbon emissions.

Bill Graham has spent decades in armed security, first in the Army, then as a police officer, and now as the associate pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Marion.

Graham organized his church’s armed safety team, and helps other churches develop their own security plans. That includes firearms training and active shooter situations, but that’s not all.

“Really, a safety team is not just guns, it’s everything — protect the children, background checks, locks on doors,” Graham told me this week. “There is a huge responsibility to make sure you are well-trained, you know the laws, know how to respond if there’s a disruptive person, know the level of force to use.”

Whether you realize it or not, there are guns all around you, and they seldom pose a threat.

It’s impossible to say how many people carry firearms, but more than 16 million Americans hold concealed handgun permits, according to the latest data from the Crime Prevention Research Center. That doesn’t include many law enforcement officials or any of the American who conceal weapons illegally.

I doubt there are any truly gun-free zones in the United States. Most can be easily bypassed by a properly fitted holster. Even in heavily secured locations, government agents can still bring their guns.

If you’re still not prepared to arm your congregants, there are other ways to prepare. Local law enforcement agencies offer active shooter response training for community groups, including religious organizations.

The training program used locally, known as ALICE, represents a shift in the way we respond to violent incidents. Instead of teaching groups to lockdown and try to shield themselves, many security experts now believe a more active response can save lives.

Houses of worship are often called “soft targets,” meaning they can be vulnerable to attackers with their unlocked doors, dense seating, and limited movement. Faith communities also have some key strengths, though, like large volunteer bases and stakeholders who literally have a religious commitment to the cause.

“I’ve never come across anybody that has hired a security team outside. It’s always been men who have a desire to keep their church safe. The last thing you want to see is someone getting hurt because you weren’t doing your due diligence,” Graham said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

Church security resources in Eastern Iowa:

• Signal 63 is a ministry of Grace Baptist Church in Marion, providing safety team training to churches. Contact: Associate Pastor Bill Graham, (319) 337-9448; www.gbcmarion.com/signal-63.

• Midwest Shooting in Hiawatha is offering free training sessions to local faith leaders. Contact: (319) 393-1888; sales@midwestshootingsupplyllc.com.

• The Iowa City Police Department offers active shooter response training to Iowa City businesses and organizations. Contact: Officer Ashten Hayes, (319) 356-5273.

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