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2017-11-22 / Featured / Front Page

In wake of mass shootings, survival sessions on the rise

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER

Above, a handgun for sale at Bob's Sport Shop. ASH DANIEL Above, a handgun for sale at Bob's Sport Shop. ASH DANIEL The scene on the screen looks like a normal morning in Anytown, USA. People enter work for the day, coffee in hand. Colleagues greet each other, smiling, and settle in at their desks. Next to the elevator, a security guard chats affably with a coworker.

A man in black abruptly enters the workplace. Sporting a bald head and wraparound shades, he quickly pulls a pump-action shotgun from his bag and starts blasting away, beginning with the security guard. The audience watching the video at Bob’s Sport Shop on Hull Street Road gasps.

“If you are ever to find yourself in the middle of an active shooter event,” warns the narrator in a voice reminiscent of Peter Coyote, “your survival may depend on whether or not you have a plan.”

For the next five minutes, the video addresses the topic everyone is here to learn about: how to survive an active shooter. Shown halfway through a two-hour workshop on that subject last week, it illustrates just how vulnerable so-called “soft targets” – such as schools, workplaces and churches – are to a lone gunman. In the wake of an ever-increasing number of mass shooting incidents across the country, active shooter trainings like this one are on the rise.

David Van Buren, co-owner of TAC-Solutions, which offers active shooter and concealed carry classes, at Bob’s Sport Shop on Hull Street Road. ASH DANIEL David Van Buren, co-owner of TAC-Solutions, which offers active shooter and concealed carry classes, at Bob’s Sport Shop on Hull Street Road. ASH DANIEL At this training, the shooting that took place at a church in rural Texas this month seems to be on everybody’s mind. In that incident, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 and injured 20, marking the deadliest shooting in modern history at an American house of worship.

“It’s horrible for a shooting to take place anywhere, but to go into a church or a place of worship, that’s atrocious,” says North Chesterfield’s Jim Blanton, sitting in the front row of the workshop with his wife, Kathy. “To have to lock the doors during service to halfway feel safe now, it’s something to think about.”

In an era when mass shootings happen with such regularity in America that they tend to blur together, many – including churchgoers – are arming themselves in anticipation of a fight.

From his haircut to his ability to joke about serious topics, there’s little about David Van Buren that doesn’t reflect his 26 years as a police officer with the Richmond Police Department.

Now retired, Van Buren and his wife, Dee Dee, own TAC-Solutions, a company that offers active shooter and concealed carry classes in the Richmond area, including at churches. While Van Buren says his classes usually receive steady interest, he does see a “surge” whenever an active shooter incident takes place.

Of last week’s training, Van Buren says, “That class was booked in about 18 hours, just slammed. We’re already setting up another class.” Van Buren says congregations need to make security evaluations of their facilities to find out where they’re most vulnerable. Some choose to lock their doors during service; others hire off-duty police officers to guard their flock. Van Buren says the latter can become expensive over time.

Regarding whether churchgoers should be allowed to carry firearms inside, Van Buren says that’s a decision best left to the leadership of a house of worship. He advises people to get written permission, as both the house of worship and the defensive shooter could be sued in the event of incident. Both, he says, should have liability policies.

“If something happens, it’s going to be horrible, it’s going to be up close, and violent,” Van Buren says.

In any case, Van Buren says its paramount for people who wear pistols for protection to have training.

“If they’re going to carry a weapon, they absolutely need to be trained,” he says, adding that people need to know how to react in different situations. He references the recent Las Vegas shooting, where a gunman on the 32nd floor of a hotel killed 58 and wounded 546 when he opened fire on a nearby country music festival.

“In Vegas, how are you going to engage a gentleman who’s over 30 stories in the air?” he asks. “You’re not. Get behind something heavy and make a plan.”

At a time when more churchgoers are considering arming themselves, it’s worth noting that carrying a weapon into a church appears to occupy a legal gray area.

According to state law, should “any person carry any gun, pistol … or other dangerous weapon, without good and sufficient reason, to a place of worship while a meeting for religious purposes is being held at such place he shall be guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor,” punishable by a fine of up to $250. Though not legally binding, in 2011 then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli stated in an advisory opinion that the right to self-defense and personal protection satisfied the requirement of “good and sufficient reason.” The opinion also states that places of worship can restrict or ban firearms.

Michael K. Kelly, spokesman for the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, states via email that “any determination about whether specific conduct is unlawful would have to be made by a local law enforcement agency and Commonwealth’s Attorney.”

Cpl. Tim Lamb, of Chesterfield County Police Department’s Crime Prevention Unit, says they don’t make any recommendations on whether congregations should be armed or not armed.

“It’s up to that congregation,” says Lamb, a member of the department’s Worship Watch Program, which advises religious communities on safety measures. “The leader of that house of worship can make the determination [as to] whether firearms are allowed.”

Created in the wake of the 2015 Charleston church shooting that left nine dead, the Worship Watch Program holds an annual event in the summer for local congregations. It also offers on-site visits on request to conduct security surveys and provide information. Part of the program entails explaining the responsibilities of having a firearm inside a house of worship.

In the wake of a mass shooting event, Lamb says they see a small spike in interest in their program.

“It’s not as much as I would expect, but we start definitely getting more calls,” Lamb says. “Since the South Carolina incident, it’s been pretty routine that people request [it], but we do get a small surge if, unfortunately, an incident occurs, especially if it’s at a house of worship.”

Lori Haas, Virginia’s director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says packing heat is the wrong answer, and that more needs to be done with prevention.

“What we need to do is recognize behaviors that indicate risk for violence and make certain that those people do not have easy access to firearms, and, in some situations, make sure that we’re disarming them,” says Haas, who became involved with gun violence prevention after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which her daughter was shot twice and survived.

Even with training, Haas says, most civilians won’t be able to react to stop a mass shooter in the moment.

“There have been few to no situations where armed persons have been able to prevent a shooting,” Haas says, noting that while a civilian did shoot the attacker in Texas, it was after the fact. “Evidence suggests that armed citizen reaction to an active shooter doesn’t happen.”

Back at the training at Bob’s Sport Shop, Chester’s Billy Hudson rests in his folding chair during the 10-minute break. A former marine, Hudson says he attended to learn more about gun laws and make sure he doesn’t jeopardize his friends and family in an active shooter situation.

Sitting with his arms folded over his chest, Hudson says the recent shootings are part of the reason he’s here.

“The shooting in Texas, and then in Antioch, Tennessee – those kinds of events are becoming more frequent,” says Hudson, referencing a September church shooting that killed one and wounded eight.

Of the likelihood of more shootings, Hudson is certain: “It’s not a matter of if,” he says. “It’s a matter of when.” ¦

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