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Surviving a Violent Attack at Church

Learn strategies for surviving a violent attack at church

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Security team member standing alert in case of emergency

Seconds after Terry Ratzmann walked into the Living Church of God service March 12, 2005, he fired 22 bullets at the people gathered there. When the handgun fell silent a minute later, eight people were dead, including Ratzmann, a regular churchgoer known for sharing homegrown vegetables with his neighbors.

No one who knew Ratzmann, 44, expected him to be violent, although some said he had grappled with depression and was about to lose his job.

Police said that he had walked out of a meeting at the suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin, church two weeks earlier, apparently upset about a sermon.

When gunfire rang out during the church service, so did screams of panic. Part of the 80-person congregation hit the floor, others sheltered loved ones, and at least one tried persuading the shooter to stop.

What Would You Do?

What would you do if someone entered your church and began shooting? Hit the floor? Run? Try to reach your children? How quickly could you devise a plan for survival?

“Your first option is to escape,” says John Nicoletti, a security consultant who has co-written books on preventing workplace and school violence. Nicoletti, a police psychologist for more than 25 years, was on the front lines of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado. Subsequently, he interviewed students, consulted authorities, and reviewed scores of other school shootings to develop an overview of school violence in America.

Five Options for Survival

His research revealed that people threatened by a potential killer have five options for survival. In order of success, they are:

  1. Getting away
  2. Locking down
  3. Concealment
  4. Playing dead
  5. Confronting the attacker

These same options would apply to a church setting, he said, noting that nothing is absolute and that every situation must be evaluated on its own merits.

1. Getting Away. Escaping from someone who may be trying to kill you generally produces the best survival rate, he said, but people don’t instinctively realize this.

Don't Rely on Instinct. “You have to know that ahead of time, or the brain will resort to fight or flight,” Nicoletti advised. He noted that several students killed during the Virginia Tech shooting April 16, 2007, simply froze when confronted by a student wielding a gun. “If you rely on instinct, it’s not going to help you,” he said.

Educate Your Congregation. That’s why churches need to tell congregations how to respond to violent situations and outline the best means of escape. Every time you fly on a commercial airline, you’re reminded about safety procedures and how to find the nearest exit, Nicoletti said. Very few churches do the same. “If an incident goes down, pandemonium will ensue,” he said, “because people don’t know what to do.”

2. Locking Down. The second option is to lock and barricade doors, then move away from them to avoid gunfire. The Virginia Tech killer shot through closed doors, but he didn’t take the time to kick doors in. He moved on to easier targets, Nicoletti said.

Locking down may be tougher for churches than for elementary schools, because many don’t have rooms with locks on them, he said. Ideally, the children’s area should be secured by a single set of solid doors that teachers could quickly lock, protecting everyone inside.

3. Concealment. If the first two options aren’t possible, fall to the floor and take cover under pews, chairs, or other objects. “Hide under stuff,” Nicoletti suggested. “They tend to look for vertical people more so than horizontal people.”

4. Playing Dead. This is one of the more difficult options. It requires people to have already been shot, and you have to really look dead, Nicoletti said. This isn’t easy when you’re battling hysteria.

5. Confronting the Attacker. This is your last resort. It should not be attempted unless all hope is lost, Nicoletti said. While highly controversial, active resistance is what halted a Springfield, Oregon, school shooting in 1998, he said.

How Vulnerable are Churches?

Primary schools are better prepared to deal with mass shootings than colleges or churches, he said, because they were forced to confront the possibility after the Columbine massacre. “Various churches will say ‘It won’t happen here,’” Nicoletti said. “Like college campuses, churches are very vulnerable.”

False Sense of Security. There are both physical and psychological reasons for churches' vulnerability. Churches typically don’t have many locked doors, don’t require identification cards to get in, and don’t have security cameras monitoring everyone who enters. Also, people generally feel safe when they enter a church. “They focus on the business of churchgoing,” he said. “They don’t focus on safety.”

Fear of Panic. Some church leaders may shy away from sharing emergency response procedures with their congregation because they fear people could panic. They believe a myth, he said. “In an airplane, you don’t panic people when you tell them where the emergency exits are,” Nicoletti said. “Most people would say, ‘I’d like to know where the exits are.’”

Plan Ahead

Your church may never face the sudden violence that struck the Living Church of God. But it's reassuring to know that with some advance planning, you can help your congregation be prepared and increase your members’ chance of survival if a violent attack were to occur.

John Nicoletti co-founded Nicoletti Associates in Lakewood, Colorado, with his wife, Lottie Flatter. He has conducted hundreds of workshops, training seminars, and consultations across the United States. His firm has recently started consulting work for churches.