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Church Security Guide

Self Defense Laws, Your Rights and Use of Force

Understanding legal authority of your Church Safety Team is crucial for lawful protection.

Some states allow people to act in self-defense, to protect themselves, other people, or property. These laws may apply to church security team members defending their congregations and church property. This post will help you understand these laws in a general sense, and use that understanding to build your Church Safety Team plans. We are not attorneys. All information here is general and not meant to be a road map for your church. Consult law enforcement or an attorney to make sure you abide with all state and federal laws.

Self Defense Laws

Laws vary from state to state, and it is best to check your state legislation to learn your specific rights. The following are general guidelines about using self-defense. You'll find myriad self-defense techniques out there. We recommend all of your Church Safety Team members complete a self-defense course of your choosing and that they receive refresher training and practice with other team members.


The choice to allow Church Safety Team members to carry firearms on church grounds is one that your church and its leadership will need to discuss at length, and decide for yourselves. There are pros and cons to having armed team members. However, if you decide that arming your team is the best option, demand every single member complete a basic firearms training program. Require they be licensed by your state to carry firearms if you live in a state where this is required.

In some places, local law enforcement provides training. In others, you may need to look elsewhere. The NRA (National Rifle Association)offers online training courses and other courses and classes available.

Ensure that every single member is fully trained before being allowed to carry a firearm on church grounds. You may also wish to institute stricter requirements for training.

The Continuum of Force

A great way to think about how to structure your safety plan is by learning the continuum of force. This is the way law enforcement agencies resolve violent situations. The National Institute of Justice explains the continuum of force as follows. Notice that force is reserved for only after many other strategies are employed.

  1. Presence: Officer presence deters violence. No force is used.
  2. Verbal De-escalation: The officers make statements such as "Let me see your license and registration." They may increase volume and issue commands such as "Stop."
  3. Empty-Handed Control: The officer may restrain the individual through grabs, punches, and kicks.
  4. Less-Lethal Methods: The officer may immobilize an individual with a baton, chemical (such as pepper spray), or conducted energy device (such as a stun gun).
  5. Lethal Force: An officer may use deadly force (such as using a firearm) to stop an individual.

Learn more about this topic and several others with our Certified Safety Member Course. It is available as an online video-based training that can be taken anytime and from anywhere using your own computer. Each section ends with a short test to demonstrate an understanding of the material. Once you've completed all 7 sections, you will be certified for 2-years with Sheepdog Church Security.

Breaking Down Self Defense Laws

While laws vary between states, there are common terms throughout. Familiarize yourself with these terms. It will make understanding your state's laws much easier.

Imminent Threat

Self-defense laws generally require that force be used only when there is an imminent (immediate) physical threat to oneself or a third person (such as a spouse or child). It is not justified to use force against someone who makes a verbal attack.

Reasonable Belief

The law often looks at whether or not the person using self-defense had a reason to suspect they were in imminent danger. For example, if a stranger seems to be about to strike your head, it is reasonable to defend yourself. Because criminal charges can come into play, it is better to use other tactics than force except in the most serious of cases.

Duty to Retreat

Reasonable belief can be a reason to use force except that many laws also include a duty to retreat. This means that you may not use deadly force unless you first try to flee the situation.

Proportional Response

Proportional response means that the reaction must match the threat. These words require equal force. For example, if the attacker forcefully shoves someone, self-defense using proportional response would allow shoving back. However, once the attack stops you must stop fighting back. Otherwise, this is retaliation, not self-defense.

Castle Doctrine

Florida lobbyist Marion P. Hammer stated, "one's home is one's castle" thus nicknaming these laws where force can be used to defend yourself in your home. These laws generally include that there is no duty to retreat at home if protecting oneself and family or guests from bodily harm but also preventing theft of property. Stand Your Ground laws are similar. These laws, passed by more than 20 states, allow people who are legally in a location to use force without first attempting to retreat. It is imperative to understand the laws of your state and whether or not the castle doctrine applies to your church before ever training Church Safety Team members in the use of force. We do not recommend using physical force to prevent theft of church property.

Defense of Others

Here, if two people are fighting a third may legally use force to stop an assault. This third person can only use as much force as necessary to stop the assault so lethal force would not be justified if the assailant could have diverted the attacker by yelling or threatening to call the cops. In other words, if a person in the church was yelling at a church member and even threatening them, a Church Safety Team member could not use mace or physically attack the intruder.

Defense of Property

Reinhart explained that people can use force to stop the theft of property or to immediately recover stolen property, but that deadly force can only be used to "defend a person from the use of or imminent use of deadly physical force or infliction or imminent infliction of great bodily harm" (p. 4). So, if your church decides to allow Church Security Team members to carry firearms, then use of those firearms would only be legal to stop an attack against a person in which great bodily harm or death could have occurred. Sheepdog Church Security does not recommend using force to stop the damage or theft of church property. Check with local law enforcement and an attorney to learn about the laws of your state.

Developing Defense Policies in Accordance with Self-Defense Laws

The following are guidelines for forming defense policies. Your policies must align with the laws of your state.

  • Church Security Team leaders should approve the use of all weapons before the team can carry them.
  • The team leader issues a list identifying
    • approved defensive weapons and restraints
    • requirements for certification in the use of each type of weapon or restraint
    • list of people approved to carry each kind of weapon or restraint
  • Anyone who carries a weapon without prior authorization should be dismissed from the team.
  • Use of force should be limited to the minimum necessary to stop the aggressor.
  • Weapons should not be used to stop the theft or damage of church property or funds.


Only allow restraints when a violent person has assaulted someone and would continue if not restrained. If someone is restrained, 911 should be called. Church Safety Team members are responsible for the safety of the person in restraints.

Chemical Sprays

Only use chemicals (like pepper spray or mace) to prevent serious injury.

Use of Weapons

Church Safety Team members may carry weapons approved by the team leader. Use the minimum amount of force necessary to stop an aggressor.

Use of Lethal Force

Conceal weapons to avoid making members fearful and having them accidentally touched.

Do not use lethal force unless it is necessary to prevent the aggressor from causing serious bodily harm or death to another person. If there is a way to stop the aggressor using less than lethal force, do that instead.

Church Safety Members discharging a firearm must do so only if it will not cause injury to someone else. When a firearm is discharged, notify the Church Safety Team leader.

Final Words on Self Defense Laws

Sheepdog Church Security cannot stress enough the importance of working with law enforcement and an attorney to develop, train, and implement all defensive policies. For more in-depth information including how to teach this topic, order our book.