There are those among us who dare to deal with the unthinkable. Those whose expertise extends to events that we’d rather not consider. Ever.
Aaron Freedkin is one of these specialists. He helps congregations prepare against the worst risk of our time: a sanctuary shooting.
Our Faith spoke with Freedkin, whose day job is leading the emergency management department at Texas Children’s Hospital, after he had conducted a shooting drill for a local synagogue, one of many he has taught over the last ten years.
“I believe that most congregation leaders have an ‘it will never happen here’ mentality,” Freedkin said. “They need to acknowledge that the threat is real and make sure that they have a plan for how their congregation is going to react during an event and then provide training for their congregation.”
Freedkin observed that schools and congregations (along with unguarded workplaces) are ‘soft targets’ where the cowardly tend to strike.
“People who perpetrate active shooter events are generally characterized as ‘wrong collectors,’” he explained. “An event that might go unnoticed by most people becomes a major slight against them so they decide at some point that they are going to push back against the people they perceive as doing wrong against them. In the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the shooter was targeting his former in-laws, blaming them for his marriage problems.
“The selection of schools and churches as targets is often because the shooter thinks that they aren’t going to experience a lot of resistance to their attack. They don’t expect school children or people in church to fight back or put up any resistance.”
And as schools harden themselves against such evildoers with new layers of screening and on-site security, it might make houses of worship seem an easier target of opportunity.
That’s what Freedkin is hoping to forestall.
“The saying that ‘the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,’ is not looking at the issue from a big picture perspective,” he offered. “I extend that axiom to ‘the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy—with proper training, and a gun.’”
Standard training to carry a concealed weapon in Texas is mostly about issues of the law with a bit of marksmanship and firearm safety. It’s not aimed at mastering dynamic shooting under fire in the manner that military and police instruction are.
There are online training options, but Freedkin said that he believes that in-house work is the better choice.
“Face-to-face training or on-site demonstration are more beneficial since there is space for discussion and questions,” he said. “After the training, congregants tell me that it has changed their perspective on the reality of the threat. They feel like they are better prepared to react to a situation and more aware of their surroundings, such as always knowing where the exits are.
Clearly, the best case way to stop a shooter is before they have carried out their attack. Experts assert that some such assassins do provide warning clues well in advance of their final, evil acts.
CNN, the cable news outlet, reported that, “In 17 percent of church shootings, the attacker felt unwelcome or had been rejected by the church. Twelve percent of the shooters suffered from a mental illness.”
Freedkin has also analyzed past tragedies along these lines.
“There are always telltale signs of someone who is moving along the path to perpetrating a shooting,” Freedkin added. “These events are rarely spontaneous. In fact, they are often planned obsessively. There are indications that something has changed in their personal situation or their demeanor. Often they will give a hint to people they like in the congregation. It may be something as subtle as ‘Hey Joe, don’t to go church this Sunday, something bad is going to happen.’”
Hence, his plan for a congregation includes promoting an awareness of such revealing behaviors. Overtly suspicious or threatening behavior, though, must be reported to the faith-groups leaders and authorities if it is to prevent a disaster.
Given all this, a of bit perspective may be in order.
Dallas S. Drake, a criminologist at the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis, offered this assurance on CNN, “It’s very safe to go to church on Sunday. There are very few incidents, but they are high-profile when they occur.”
Next week in Our Faith: Explore a group approach to dealing with grief that is in use at a number of local churches.