A shaven-headed man storms into the sanctuary of a church, grimly stomping past row on row of chairs, a rifle in his hands. Twenty-seven men and women duck down, assuming fetal positions on the carpeted floor.
The man repeatedly pulls the trigger, pointing the gun down toward the prone worshipers as he circles the group, then circles them again.
Finally the man stops. There are no blood spatters, no wounds, no bullets – only a retired cop holding a plastic toy rifle filled with harmless yellow foam balls.
There has been no carnage in this church, only a lesson for its members, given by their pretend shooter: in a genuine gun attack, hunkering down is death, and immediately running away offers by far the best chance of survival.
“In 40 seconds I was able to aim and fire at every person in this room. Twice,” Al Bahn announced to members of Napa Valley Life Church after they got up from the floor of their sanctuary. “That’s what happens in a lockdown. Now what’s your feedback from that drill?”
“Forty seconds is a long time,” one woman answered. A man in the audience was more blunt: “We wouldn’t have a chance.”
In a seminar Tuesday night, the congregation on Trower Avenue in north Napa received training to better handle a once unimaginable act that has become all too familiar in the past two decades – a lone misfit bursting into a school or store or house of worship determined to shoot and kill as many people as possible.
“The training is basically to run as soon as you can; a moving target is harder to hit,” said Bahn, pointing to accuracy rates that drop off sharply even for trained police officers, much less unschooled attackers armed with resentment as much as with firearms. “If 70 percent of the (potential) victims run, it starts to change the balance of power.”
The teacher on this evening was Bahn, a former Napa Police sergeant who later served as dean of students for both Napa and Vintage high schools. Upon leaving the school district in 2010, he became a trainer with the ALICE Training Institute, a consultancy that prepares clients to deal with acts of mass violence, before opening his own Napa-based company Edu-Safe Associates two years ago. (Napa Valley Life Church received Bahn’s seminar without charge.)
Churches have been among those organizations to seek out shooter response training like Bahn’s seminars because even religious institutions have not been spared the destruction wrought by lone shooters, according to Bahn – evidenced by attacks on an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 and on a Pittsburgh synagogue last year.
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“I think clergy have realized this is something they have to do,” he said before the Tuesday training session. “It’s a tragic fact that we have to do this training, but my view is that active killer response training should be like CPR. I challenge people to name me one type of venue where this has never happened – and they can’t.”
“We recognized it as an opportunity to keep people better trained” against the worst-case scenario, added Pastor Tony Valenti. “We wish we didn’t have to, but we recognize the reality of the world.”
During four hours of lecture and drills in the church sanctuary, Bahn emphasized the importance of knowing where exits are and quickly fleeing when possible, or barricading a room from the inside when forced to do so. The long-common practice of putting a public space under lockdown during a shooting, he declared, often endangers the very people it aims to protect – referring to the numerous victims reportedly killed in a prone position at Virginia Tech in 2007, or during the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.
“It’s ludicrous to tell people to get on the floor and lock the door when a shooter is looking for people to kill,” he told church members. “… Unfortunately, we’ve had too many (school) attacks where the children were ‘accounted for’ – because they were dead.”
Furthermore, he added, people in a public space must remember how rapidly an attacker can take multiple lives in the minutes before the first law-enforcement officers can arrive.
“You have to be the first responders; police are the second responders,” said Bahn. “If the police get there when the killer is still alive they might stop him, but in most cases they don’t, because he’s either fled or he’s taken his own life.”
A person’s first instinct during a shooting should be to run, he said. If that proves impossible, the next course of action should be to find an office, closet or some similar space that can be secured from inside by stacking furniture against the door or even binding the door handle shut with power cords.
And what if a church member directly encounters the gun-wielding intruder and has no choice but confrontation? In that case, Bahn advised, would-be targets can throw objects to distract the shooter and gain a valuable second or two, or team up and seize him by the arms and legs. To drive that point home, he cast church member Hank Hobbes in the role of an “intruder” and instructed four others to grab him, each taking hold of one limb – rendering him unable to move, much less fire a gun.
Hobbes managed a smile during the drill, as did those play-acting along with him, but the gravity of why such drills are necessary lingered with Bill Cody, a 20-year Napa Valley Life member who belongs to the church’s “first impression team” for Sunday services.
“If somebody came in after the service started, they could easily shoot their way in, and I could easily see pandemonium starting to happen,” he said during a break in the seminar. “In this day and age, it’s a concern everybody has.”