2019 Mass Shootings and Lessons Learned

It seems that churches and other religious facilities have joined schools in becoming popular places for demented killers to carry out their dastardly acts. Like schools, churches are gathering points where larger numbers of people congregate, making it easier to get a “high body count”. On December 29, 2019, a lone 43-year-old gunman armed with a shotgun walked into a church service in White Settlement, a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. He had the short-barreled shotgun with a pistol grip rather than a normal buttstock concealed under a long coat and after sitting for a while, he stood up and opened fire. He fired just two times, killing two people, before he was killed by one of several armed members of the church, some of them serving as a volunteer security team. The entire incident, from first shot to last, was over in about six seconds and ended when the gunman was shot in the head by one of the security team members from a reported distance of 12-15 yards. Over 240 individuals were attending the service at the time of the attack and the entire incident was captured on the church’s video camera system used to live-stream the service.

Just a day earlier, an individual attacked a group of people celebrating Hanukkah at their rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York. During that attack five people were stabbed before the assailant fled. Fortunately, none were killed. The assailant was captured about an hour later. In 2017, another private citizen in Texas intervened to stop a killer that was firing into a Sutherland Springs church. In that incident, 26 people were killed and several more were wounded.

This latest shooting occurred at the West Freeway Church of Christ. The gunman was a transient that lived in the Fort Worth area and had been arrested multiple times in three different states in the past. He was not on any “watch list” and it is unclear if any of his arrests resulted in convictions that would have made it illegal for him to own or possess firearms.

In September, a change in Texas firearms laws in response to the earlier Sutherland Springs shootings removed houses of worship from the list of “no gun zones” and allows individual in them to be armed. In addition to the church security team members, other armed church members also drew their handguns and helped secure the scene before the police arrived, about two minutes after being notified of the incident.

Of course, liberals and the media reacted to the White Settlement and Monsey attacks quite differently. The media outlets have given the Monsey attack a lot of coverage but are downplaying the church shooting because a private citizen was able to end that attack by using his gun. They are even that the church shooting has “re-ignited a debate” on whether it is appropriate to have guns in houses of worship. I can think of at least 240 Texans that have no doubt about the appropriateness of doing so. Democrat Presidential candidate Joe Biden called the Texas law allowing guns in churches “irrational”.

A few “lessons learned” from these incidents are apparent. The first is that a rapid response is needed to limit the loss of life. However, as fast as the responses were, they could not prevent casualties. In this latest case, the incident lasted less than 10 seconds and during that time three people, including the gunman, were shot and killed. Earlier in 2019, the shooting in Dayton’s Oregon District was over in less than one minute but resulted in nine people being killed and several others being wounded.

As fast as the response was in the most recent incident, some firearms pundits have complained that was too slow. They point out that the first security team member was fatally shot just over 3 seconds after the gunman produced his gun and the second security team member took just over 5 seconds to respond and fire the shot that stopped the gunman. While it is true that sub-2 second times are the standard for drawing and delivering a shot on target during firearms training drills, I believe the response times in this incident were reasonable, but in the case of the first security team member, not fast enough. In responding to the gunman, the security team and other armed members of the church had to go through the OODA loop. They had to “observe” the threat, “orient” towards it, “decide” what to do, and then “act”. This takes some time. When shooting drills on the firing range, three of these steps are normally completed ahead of time. We already know the target and are facing it, thus the “observe” and “orient” steps are completed. We already know we are going to shoot once the signal is given, so the “decide” step is already completed. All we must do is “act”, i.e., draw our gun and shoot. When confronted with an unexpected event, it is not unusual for the OODA loop to take a little longer to complete because the first step is to recognize what is happening. While we are trying to figure that out, we are in the “freeze” state and not taking any action. In the West Freeway Church, members of the security team and some other church members had recognized something strange regarding the gunman’s appearance, but they did not know what he was going to do and likely did not expect him to produce a gun and start shooting.

The second lesson is that being able to effectively place hits on a target at longer distances is sometimes required. In this case, the gunman was engaged and stopped by individuals using handguns that were as much as 12-15 yards away from the threat. That is much longer than the 0-5 yards where 85% of shootings occur and many firearms training classes focus all their range shooting drills. Having to shoot at such longer distances becomes more likely when the attacker is armed with a rifle or shotgun. It didn’t hurt that the individual that stopped the gunman was an experienced firearms trainer that had his own shooting range where he taught others to shoot and he was the head of the church’s security team. His experience and expertise paid off on this occasion.

In defeating shooters in both White Settlement and Dayton, shots had to be taken with many innocent bystanders present, some of them in the general line of fire. Fortunately, no bystanders were hit. This makes being able to precisely place your shots critical! It also makes knowing where your gun is pointed important. In reviewing the video of the attack and the immediate aftermath at the West Freeway Church, you can see several armed church members respond with drawn handguns. In just about every case, they were so fixated on the threat that they failed to see several church members that were directly in line with the muzzles of their handguns. Some held their guns in the low ready position, which is the normally trained ready position, but this resulted in their muzzles being pointed towards the floor where several church members had dived down seeking cover. It would have been more appropriate in this situation to have used a high ready position, but this is seldom taught during firearms training classes. People that have some firearms training tend to automatically do what they were taught without consciously thinking about it. In this case, their training in the use of appropriate ready positions was apparently lacking.

Another lesson is that drawing attention to yourself is likely to get you shot. The first individual that was killed in White Settlement stood up in response to the gunman confronting another church member and appeared to be attempting to draw a concealed handgun when the assailant shot him. His sudden movement undoubtedly attracted the attention of the gunman. By drawing attention to himself, he probably saved someone else from being shot, but it probably was not his intention to attract the shooter’s attention. How he was carrying his concealed handgun contributed to this situation. He was carrying it in an inside-the-waistband (IWB) holster. He was wearing a sports coat and an untucked dress shirt with long tails that he had to clear away to get to his gun. He was also wearing his gun in the 4-5 o’clock position, making it extremely difficult for him to access it without standing up. If you have not trained to access your concealed firearm from unusual positions, it will be difficult for you to do it when you are faced with a life and death situation. Most firearms classes do not train you how to draw from unusual positions because of liability concerns or limit such training to advanced classes that very few individuals chose to attend.

Where you chose to locate yourself in a room is important. Because of where the most recent incident occurred, people there had very limited options regarding being able to flee from the scene. For most, the incident was over before they were able to understand what was taking place and could just duck for cover at the sound of shots being fired. The confined nature of most churches makes rapid escape very difficult except for those sitting on the outside edges of the various pews and close to room exits. Their only real choice was to duck down behind the pews hoping they would provide enough cover and concealment. The first victim, who was a member of the security team, was appropriately positioned at the rear of the church in the last row of pews with a wide isle in front of him so he could get up and move. He was located just 3-5 yards away from the gunman when the incident began and had engaged the gunman in conversation. However, he had no cover between himself and the gunman and, being in the last row against the wall, he had no place to retreat to. When he stood to draw his gun, the attacker was already oriented towards him and just had to pull the trigger.

The second victim was apparently an usher was located even closer to the gunman, within arm’s reach, and could have reached out and deflected the barrel of the shotgun when the gunman produced it if he had been trained to do so. However, he had a large object in his hands and rather than moving closer to the gunman, his reaction to seeing the gun was to retreat, but was prevented from doing so by the pew and wall immediately behind him. Meanwhile, the gunman had taken a couple of steps to the rear, increasing the distance between him and the second victim when he pulled the trigger to fire his second shot.

The member of the security team that stopped the threat was also appropriately located at the rear of the church. He was already standing when the incident started, had observed the potential threat, and was oriented toward it. Still, it took him about 5 seconds to recognize that the assailant had produced a gun and was pointing it at other church members. Indeed, when he fired the fatal shot, the gunman had turned and was starting to advance towards the front of the church. After the security member fired, upwards of five other armed individuals rushed in with drawn guns and proceeded towards where the downed gunman was.

Yet another lesson learned is to trust your instincts. The gunman’s appearance drew the attention of several churchgoers, including members of the security team. The gunman was wearing an ill-fitting wig and had a fake beard on to disguise his appearance. He was dressed in a long coat with a hood up covering his head. His manner of dress was very different from everyone else attending the church service that day. However, the security team and church greeters failed to act to deny him entry to the church and could only react to the gunman’s actions. One individual attending the service at the West Freeway Church said the gunman had briefly sat near her. She said he made her feel uncomfortable to the point that she suggested to her husband that they take their young daughter and move to a different location. However, the shooting started before they could do so. If someone looks suspicious, pay attention to that “inner voice” and heighten your level of situational awareness.

In all the incidents sited here, individuals took immediate action. In three of the incidents — in White Settlement, Sutherland Springs, and Monsey — private citizens stopped the attacks. In the case of Dayton, on-scene police responded quickly to end the attack. Experts agree that taking action is better than doing nothing and doing so undoubtedly saved lives.

For most people, their house of worship is a place of sanctuary and peace. Having to face violence is the last thing they think about. However, this latest incident once again demonstrates that you must maintain your situational awareness wherever you are. The only place you can afford to be in “condition white” is in your home, and even then, you are not completely safe from a potential home invasion. You always need to be aware and be prepared to act whenever you are awake!

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