Self Defense in the House of God
An Interview with Tom and Lynn Givens
Interview by Gila Hayes
A few decades ago, needing to defend yourself and your family at church was never discussed. Today, few would challenge the value of learning defense strategies for time spent in a house of worship.
In light of the Network’s focus on individual responsibility (membership benefits are provided to individuals, not to groups), we won’t offer advice on the many issues attached to organizing a church security team. If Network members or their pastors have concerns about security teams, they should contact qualified firearms trainers including our Advisory Board for instruction in the skills to defend against mass murderers.
The Network’s greater concern is that every churchgoer should have a self-defense plan on which to rely during time spent in and around places of worship. This is a topic on which our Network Advisory Board Member Tom Givens and his wife Lynn Givens are eminently qualified to speak. Let’s switch now to a Q & A format, and learn from them in their own words.
eJournal: First, before we begin talking about defending oneself while at church, how do you respond to the common question, “Would you really carry a gun into a place of worship?”
Tom Givens: Of course I would! To me, it is a silly question. In the first place, you’ve got to get to church; you’ve got to get back. That means you’re out in public, in an uncontrolled environment.
Lynn Givens: In looking through the Bible, God addresses people being able to protect themselves. He addresses the person’s actions but never addresses the person’s tool. The Bible never addresses by what means the person was killed, it is always about the person’s intent. When Cain and Abel’s situation broke out, God never addressed the tool that was used. He addressed the intent for which the killing took place. The Bible always focuses on the intent of the person responsible for the act, and never focuses on the instrument, because instruments don’t act on their own; it is the person who does the acts.
eJournal: So the choice to carry a gun is more about why you carry it, not whether you brought a gun into the sanctuary?
Lynn Givens: Yes, you have a right to protect yourself and your family from death.
eJournal: What kinds of violence occur at churches and what’s the frequency?
Tom Givens: Most people have no idea how much violence occurs in churches. I attended a national church security conference in 2011. [Scanning a page of notes] I’ve got some notes here that I took. First, serious crimes reported at churches had gone up 200% in the preceding five years, which was a rather dramatic increase. From January 1999 to August of 2011, one study found 473 incidents resulting in over 200 fatalities. Not injuries, fatalities. That was five years ago, and things have gotten worse now than they were then.
One of the things we find is that unless it is an actual fatality, a lot of serious crime in churches goes vastly underreported. The churches have a vested interest in NOT reporting to avoid negative publicity or to avoid having the congregation not show up.
Lynn Givens: One reason a lot of churches don’t report violent incidents is that it runs up their insurance costs, so a lot of times when people come into the church and commit crimes, the church does not report it.
eJournal: What are we talking about? Mass murder by a psychotic person, religious jihad, or plain old garden-variety brawling?
Tom Givens: In another study, they looked at 335 incidents that happened in churches, breaking down the root cause of the incident and they found that domestic violence accounted for about 18 percent of it. Typically, that’s church staff getting involved in a couple’s marital dispute or in their custodial dispute, one or the other. 27% of the time–one out of four–it was a personal beef. That means that somebody in the church got mad enough at somebody else to seriously assault or kill them. Here’s one that surprises a lot of people, robbery was the motive 27 percent of the time. All churches have cash in them; I’ve never seen a collection plate with a credit card being run. Then, about 10% of the incidents are gang related and another 18% is just random.
eJournal: That’s kind of odd, because people seem more frightened that ISIS might attack their church or that someone off their medications will come in and slash or shoot the worshipers. What you just described could be done by the same people we chat with at the potluck after church services.
Tom Givens: If the pastor is assaulted during the week, typically it will be because a woman has come to the church seeking shelter from a batterer. The batterer shows up and feels the pastor is interfering in his marriage and he beats him up. That assault goes unreported because that is just part of daily business.
For every battered woman, there is a batterer. There is a reason she is trying to get away from him! He is irrational and violent. Who commits assaults? Irrational and violent people. Understand, that a program to help drug addicts brings drug addicts in to the church and drug addicts are responsible for a high percent of the crime.
eJournal: What else do we know about attackers at church?
Tom Givens: They tend to be male, overwhelmingly, 92% of the time, and guns are used in about 60% of those assaults, knives 16%, automobiles 20%. Guns were used in 60%–so you asked earlier, do I carry a gun to church? You bet I do, because the majority of these, two out of three, involve fighting back against a gun, so I am going to have one or two. To me, it is almost a silly question. Of course, I do. Who wouldn’t? My normal response is, “Don’t you?”
In the study with the 473 incidents I mentioned before, 596 people were seriously injured or killed. That is almost 600. Remember, with modern trauma care, there are hundreds of people hurt badly who don’t die, and by “bad” I don’t mean broken fingernails or bloody noses, I mean injuries that require multiple surgeries, and to the degree that they’re possibly crippled for life. In my city, in 2013 alone, of the 20 hospitals in the metropolitan area, the one that catches most of the gunshots (although not all of them), treated 3,100 people for gunshots. Only about a hundred of them died.
Now, take the 200 fatalities from the study and apply that. We are talking about thousands of people. It is not some arcane threat; it is a real, plausible possibility. It may or may not be likely that you will be present at church during a shooting, but it is certainly a plausible possibility. So why not just take some sensible precautions?
eJournal: We hear a lot about organized church security. Is their job different than that of the individual churchgoer?
Tom Givens: Absolutely. The problems faced by the individual congregant and organized security details are completely different. The church detail, believe it or not, is actually mostly concerned with the security of the pastor, because he is most likely to attract the attacker’s attention.
In most of the high profile churches, the deacons sitting near the pastor will have pistols on them because they are concerned about his security more than anything else. He is essentially the heart of the church. He is the prime target for the nut case or the disgruntled husband, or the jihadist, but normally it is not the jihadist, it is the estranged husband, and the pastor is the primary target.
For the congregant it’s completely different. I am not concerned about the pastor; the pastor has other people who are concerned about him. I’m more concerned about me and mine, so I want to be as far from the pastor as possible.
eJournal: What, no pressure to sit down front? This is interesting.
Tom Givens: Well, if I go to a retail establishment or if I am at a fast food restaurant, I want to be as far away from the cash register as I can, because the cash register is the target. I’ll sit near a door, so I will be able to get out. I’ll sit facing the cash register, because if a problem is going to occur, it is probably going to start there, and that way I am behind everybody that comes past me to head to the cash register.
For this discussion, I look at the pastor as the cash register. I want to be far away from him, and facing him. I want to be close to an exit so I can get out and not be involved in the stampede; I want to be ahead of the stampede. I am watching in the direction that the problem is going to occur and I’m able to extract myself and Lynn from the place very quickly.
I am not concerned with protecting the pastor who is 50 yards in front of me, with a thousand people between him and me. I am going to be hustling out the door. The individual congregant essentially has a hundred and eighty degree difference in focus from the security detail. The security detail should be moving toward the pastor, but the congregant should be moving toward the door.
eJournal: You stole my next question! I was going to ask you to prioritize what we should do.
Tom Givens: Get out!
Lynn Givens: As a couple, we have a plan to split, to divide the attention. We have actually done this before. We were in a McDonald’s and a fight broke out in the check out line. I looked at Tom and he looked at me, and we said, “We are out of here!”
Our plan is to separate to divide the person’s attention. They can’t keep their attention on both of us if we’re moving apart. If Tom’s going at a 45-degree angle to the right and I’m going the other way to the left, what’s the person going to do? It divides their attention and makes it more difficult to target either of us.
Tom Givens: He can’t watch both of us. The wider you can split their attention, the better. Then, if you have two groups, maybe you can put one group between you and the other, stacking them up and blocking the other’s view. By moving apart, our path can’t be blocked, one or the other of us can move away. We don’t want to be huddled up and both trying to get through the door at the same time.
eJournal: Do you have any immediate concern about calling law enforcement?
Tom Givens: Well, there’s no point. Memphis is just an example I use because I’m intimately familiar with it, but the average wait time for a 9-1-1 call is about ten minutes. Then the average response time after that for a priority one call is 17 minutes. The only thing you call for is for somebody to come pick up the mess and do the paperwork.
It is not physically possible for police to come and intervene. It is just not going to happen. They can’t take the call, move that information to a dispatcher, radio that to a car, and the car go through city traffic from where they are to where you are, and then enter the church and then do something in time. It is not going to happen. It is just not possible. By the time they get there it is going to all be over. The only way anybody is going to be able to do anything is if they are on the scene when the whole thing starts. If somebody calls the cops, it will be over by the time they get there.
eJournal: Have you any altruistic hopes of using your gun to save your fellow worshipers?
Tom Givens: Once the first shot goes off, everybody in the place is going to be up and milling around. You are not going to be able to engage somebody down front 50 yards away through a milling crowd of panicked people coming toward the exits in a panicked stampede. So again, the attacker is the security detail’s problem. If I am on the security detail, that’s my problem.
eJournal: To what standards do you hold yourself before you would ever consider going to guns in such a crowded environment?
Tom Givens: You better be pretty good! As you know, your skill degrades a good deal under stress, so if you can barely hit a silhouette at 25 yards you are not going to be able to hit a person under those conditions at 25 yards. 25 yards is almost five car lengths, and lots of churches are a lot bigger than that. I’ve been in mega churches and cathedrals where it is 100 or 150 yards across the nave, or the auditorium if you want to call it that. Some churches are huge, and the idea of a thousand people milling around between the target and me is pretty daunting, and I think I’m a pretty decent shot. [grinning]
eJournal: While you can’t control what a panicked congregation does, what about the safety of your children or grandchildren attending the church? How can you help them if the children are in the youth center and your spouse is in the infants’ nursery while you’re in the main sanctuary? What are you going to do?
Lynn Givens: You need to have a plan to deal with yourself and your family. You need to get training and need to understand that it could happen to you and be prepared for it. Don’t be passing it off as something that it is not. Have a plan, talk to your kids.
Tom Givens: You are not going to be able to coordinate your escape. You do need to plan ahead. The kids need to be taught what to do in that case, “Go out the nearest exit and go to our car,” for instance. I’m not saying that is the thing to do; I’m saying that is an example. You may tell the children, “If there is ANY emergency, maybe the fire alarm goes off, or you hear what you think are shots, or if you see people screaming and running down the hall, don’t wait to see what people are screaming about, get out and go to our car.”
Lynn Givens: I think it is important for people to learn to recognize what sounds are. When a gun goes off, people say, “Oh, that was a firecracker!”
Tom Givens: That’s right–at Virginia Tech, people thought the gunshots were hammering, because there was construction going on. They try to rationalize it. “Oh, it couldn’t be shots!”
eJournal: From a practical viewpoint, the single directive, “If there’s a commotion, leave the building,” solves a wide variety of possible problems.
Tom Givens: At least you have a plan! If it is a fire alarm, it gets them out of the building. If people are running and screaming, I am going to assume something scared them. The last thing I want children to do is just hang around and watch to see what is going on, because it is probably bad, what ever it is.
eJournal: Good point! Can you teach very small children to get out of the building?
Tom Givens: Well, if they are old enough to be separated from you, then they are big enough to understand that they are to go to the nearest exit and leave the building.
eJournal: Not to be argumentative, but I have seen churchgoers drop off some pretty small children for Sunday School then go off to another part of the church!
Tom Givens: Well, you’d better have a conversation with the caregivers in those rooms, hadn’t you? I’m more and more reluctant to leave my children in the care of anybody else.
Lynn Givens: Me, too. When they are that young, I am more inclined to have them with me, and if they get disruptive, I would leave the sanctuary and try to settle them down. But at this point, I would not leave my child until they were old enough to understand what to do if something happened. We sit in the back row, bring coloring books, crayons, or videos with the sound turned off, but I would not leave them.
eJournal: I respect that, although I was dropped off with all the other toddlers for little kids’ worship. I think that the church of my childhood did not confront the challenges faced by congregations today.
Tom Givens: We don’t live in the situation we lived in 50 years ago. People just need to understand and recognize that. I would be willing to bet that when I was ten years old, going to a church of 5,000 people, there wouldn’t have been more than one or two handguns in there, if that, and they were on off-duty policemen.
eJournal: And today?
Tom Givens: Now that is not the world we now live in.
Lynn Givens: A church is now a public forum that handles all kinds of people with problems. Our churches have changed their outreach. When I was younger, we didn’t have Alcoholics Anonymous at the church. We didn’t have a group going on for the mentally disturbed, now we have all these groups in churches that reach out to people with problems, and they come to the church to get food, they come to get clothing, all sorts of things. Then if something happens in their lives and they retaliate, the church is the place where they end up going.
Tom Givens: I am not by any means saying abandon these programs. What I am saying is be aware that you have heightened your risk and take appropriate counter measures. We cannot say, stop dealing with alcoholics, or stop dealing with drug addicts, or stop dealing with battered spouses. We are saying, understand that raises your risk for violence and prepare for it.
Lynn Givens: Because I was raised in a church family, I may be more aware of this. A person needs to stay relevant, stay up with today’s times. Our culture has changed; people have changed. We cannot any longer say to ourselves that man is born inherently good, because they are given the choice between good and evil and a lot of times man chooses evil. So talking someone down from doing something in a church environment isn’t going to work. When you try to talk people into putting the gun down, not doing a violent act, it usually does not work, and you actually are giving up your choice whether to live or not.
eJournal: Any time you have large groups of people, you have natural leaders: the minister, priest or rabbi, the elders, the deacons and other church officials. What is your message to the men and women who lead large numbers of worshipers to gather together in one place where they’re vulnerable to attack?
Tom Givens: Recognize the threat exists instead of hiding your head in the sand and hoping it goes away. Recognize it and take some simple, intelligent countermeasures. Don’t wait for the attack to happen.
Almost every time I find a congregation putting security into place, it is AFTER a critical incident. “Oh, my! So-and-so was killed in the parking lot! We need to do something about the parking lot!” Well, if you had done something before, maybe he would still be alive. Don’t wait until you have the event to start planning for the event.
Know that the possibility exists on any given day. Playing with probabilities is silly, if you are involved, you are 100% involved. I once had a statistician tell me that everything in the universe has a 50-50 percent chance, either it will happen or it won’t. That’s kind of the way I see things. Is it possible? Yeah, but why worry about it?
eJournal: Knowing you and Lynn, I doubt you stay awake nights worrying, although you are prepared to solve safety problems.
Tom Givens: Worry is the wrong word. There is not much that I worry about, because I am a “coper.” As Jeff Cooper wrote 50 years ago, the world is divided up between copers and non-copers. The idea of training is that when bad stuff comes along you just have to cope with it. It is the way I live. If it is a foreseeable problem and I can take reasonable steps to reduce that threat, then I’ll simply do that. Like Teddy Roosevelt said, the problems you prepare for don’t happen. It is the problems that you don’t prepare for that happen.
eJournal: That is our most important message–be prepared. I’m not suggesting that people stop congregating for worship. We want people to be able to worship with their fellow believers without being paralyzed by fear.
Tom Givens: Part of the purpose of getting quality training and being armed is peace of mind. I don’t have to be concerned with, “Well, what if this happens? What if that happens?” because I have the equipment to deal with it. Now, if anything happens, I’ll fix it. I don’t have to live like a mouse at a cat show, thinking, well, if something bad happens I won’t be able to do anything. I won’t live like that. I will not have my options taken away from me.
Understand that violence actually does happen. When it does happen, don’t stand there denying it! Don’t say, “I can’t believe this is happening!” If you recognized before hand that, “This may in fact happen,” then when it does, your response is, “Well, I knew this might happen and I know how to deal with it.” When you spend so much energy trying to convince yourself that it is NOT going to happen and then it does, then your response is, “I can’t believe this is happening.” Accept that, “Yes, it may happen,” and then when it does your response is, “OK, I can deal with this.”
Recognize that this is a hazardous world–I don’t consider it a dangerous world, there is a difference–if you are not trained and equipped, it is dangerous. If you are trained and equipped, it is merely hazardous. I can control a hazard; I can cope with it. I can foresee and figure out what might happen and take steps to ameliorate that threat and then forget about it; live happily. That is what I encourage people to do.
eJournal: We are fortunate to have your guidance so we become “copers,” too. In addition, the Network really appreciates the direction you give us as a member of our Advisory Board. Thank you for supporting the Network since its earliest days and for sharing this thought provoking discussion with us today.
Tom and Lynn Givens travel the nation teaching a variety of defensive firearms classes as well as instructor development programs. They are also rightly famous for the popular RangeMaster Tactical Conference and the Polite Society Match. Learn more about their training, the schedules, locations and other details at http://rangemaster.com.
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