Of COVID and Guns

I was talking to some friends recently about churches and COVID and churches and armed security. The evil in Uvalde seemed to confirm to them the wisdom for increased security at the church (requiring concealed carry for security, locking church doors during worship, putting security cameras around the church). The questions I asked were, What is the threat level? Is there a reasonable likelihood of a violent threat to the church?

I have found that those who advocate this kind of church security overlap with those who are done with COVID. Done with masks, social distancing, temperature checks, living in fear. Do the masks work? Maybe. But people are deeply social and lose something with the masks. Instead of creating real security from the virus, it provides a false sense of security; virtue signalling, if you will. Masks might even be counter-productive for all sort of reasons!

As I write this, the national 7-day daily average of COVID deaths is 338; 2,366 a week, 141,620 a year at that rate. That number is acceptable to most of our country, to my friends, for lower health security in the church so to back to normal, regular life and not live in fear. I don’t blame them: some number has to be picked, and it’s not clear how much would be gained by imposing restrictions and security. Something is lost in doing that. Now, moving past COVID, in my lifetime the deadliest flu season was 2017-2018, with ~61,000 deaths (1,173 a week, 167 a day). The least deadly was 2011-2012 with ~12,000 deaths (231 a week, 33 a day). Masks and hand washing are undoubtedly more effective against the flu than COVID, yet never in my life have churches ever mandated these kinds of practices. There is an acceptable rate of death to have a normal life and not live in fear. Something would be lost for the church if these restrictions and security were put into place. That’s the threat assessment and the cost/benefit analysis.

So what’s the threat assessment for shootings at churches? Since the Columbine school shooting on April 20, 1999, there have been 21 fatal church shootings. There is not an uptick in shootings more recently. Since 1999, there have been a total a 623 people killed in shootings at faith-based institutions (churches, synagogues, mosques). Over 23 years that is less than two days of the current COVID death rate. That’s less than three weeks of flu deaths in the least deadly flu year.

COVID and the flu are far more likely to kill churchgoers than a shooter. Maybe if there was a high security threat the loss of normal life, the not living in fear, would be worth it in exchange for a fortress. As it is, I was reminded of this article from January, following the hostage situation at the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. It’s by Juliette Kayyem, a security expert:

But what if the essence of a place is that it is defenseless? What if its ability to welcome others, to be hospitable to strangers, is its identity? What if vulnerability is its unstated mission? That is the challenge I hadn’t considered….

In security, we view vulnerabilities as inherently bad. We solve the problem with layered defenses: more locks, more surveillance. Deprive strangers of access to your temple, I urged the committee members [at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh], and have congregants carry ID. They would have none of it. Access was a vulnerability embedded in the institution, and no security expert could change that — we do logistics, not souls.

The standoff in Colleyville ended with the attacker dead and the hostages unharmed. But all around the country, synagogues are no doubt convening their security committees, wondering what more they can do to defend their members without losing their essential vulnerability. A synagogue is not like an airport or a stadium. When it becomes a fortress, something immeasurable is lost.

What is lost when a church becomes a fortress? Something intangible, but real. When a church becomes a fortress with no enemies at the gates? The inhabitants become acclimated to living in fear of the world.