YAKIMA — Sharon Eggleston filed into the Open Bible Christian Center recently not to worship, but to learn how to shoot a gun.
“Actually, I’ve been praying about it,” the 70-year-old said about taking the gun-training class at the Yakima church. “For protection.”
She was among more than a dozen women enrolled in the five-hour class in how to properly handle and shoot a gun.
As incongruous as it may seem to hold firearms training in a church, it’s not unheard of.
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Since the Newtown, Conn., massacre in December, at least a dozen churches across the country have been holding similar classes as a way to reach out to non-Christians and attract new members, according to news reports.
The movement has led lawmakers in several states, including Arkansas, South Carolina, Wyoming and Louisiana, to scrap state laws barring guns from churches, and has polarized some Christians, according to reports.
In Washington, there is no law barring guns from churches.
The Open Bible Christian Center’s effort is part of a bigger mission to make the church a safer place, said Pastor Mike Lyon.
Last month, the church brought in a certified trainer from Oregon to teach personal protection, including lessons to prevent child abductions, women’s basic self-defense and an “all-threat” security training for faith-based organizations.
“We’re not a militia church,” said Lyon, a gun owner. “We’re just a regular group of people that just wants to be safe.”
He said the idea for the classes stemmed from church discussion that revealed several gun owners, mostly men, in his 350-member congregation. After three women said they were not confident using the guns their husbands bought them, he began looking into classes.
Popular with women
The women’s gun class has been most popular, with about 40 participants, compared with a dozen men.
“We’ve just got people wanting to learn how to shoot the guns they’ve got,” he said.
Reflecting on the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults, Lyon said the training overall is to teach church members and staff how to respond if such a tragic event were to occur here.
“If people are trained, then more lives are saved,” he said. “I’d rather be too prepared than wish I had been prepared.”
He said the church isn’t immune to problems. Over the years he’s had to deal with drunks and people causing a ruckus at the church.
“Just because the place is a church, people think it’s a place where perfect people come,” he said. “It’s not. It’s a place where people who are not perfect come to straighten out their lives.”
Lyon is critical of efforts to strengthen gun-control laws, saying it would only unarm the innocent. He likens the scenario to how a gazelle fights off a lion.
“In the world, there are predators and prey,” he said. “A gazelle has the right to fight off a lion with its horns and hoofs — that’s its right. But what the gun-control people are saying is ‘Let’s cut off your horns and hoofs so you can’t protect yourself.’ ”
But the thought of bringing guns into church or allowing members with permits for concealed guns to carry the weapons into a place of worship has worried some Christians, Lyon acknowledges.
“When people ask me about it, they’ll say, ‘Don’t you think God will protect you?’ ” he says. “And I throw back at them, ‘Do you lock your car door? Do you lock your home? Don’t you think God will protect you?’ It’s just good common sense.”
Keeping cool heads
During a recent class, women laid their pistols on a nearby table before taking a seat: a Smith & Wesson, a Sig Sauer, a Beretta and a few Rugers.
“Some of the women handed (me) the gun like it was a dirty diaper, saying, ‘This is what my husband gave me,’ ” said instructor Mike Kay, who previously spent 16 years in law enforcement. “That’s kind of scary because we want them to feel comfortable handling a firearm. It’s about keeping everyone safe.”
The class not only focuses on how to handle a gun, but also when and how to legally use it.
After about two hours of class time, he took them to a shooting range where they shot at targets that simulate gun-toting bad guys and innocent bystanders nearby.
He said the exercise teaches people the importance of keeping a cool head in order to prevent harm to innocent people.
“Under stress, our body tends to shut down and we go into survival mode,” he said. “We’re teaching them to use their eyes and mind to assess the situation before they react.”
Kay said more women are seeking gun training because they don’t feel safe. He blames budgets that have forced cutbacks at law-enforcement agencies across the country.
“I think it has a lot to do with it,” he said. “Law-enforcement agencies, jails, mental-health services are all getting cut.”
Pistol in fanny pack
Like Eggleston, other women at the class said they’re interested in learning their way around a gun in a society where random violent crime appears to be increasing.
Carol Watt said she just wants a refresher. She has a concealed-weapons permit and keeps her .38 pistol with her at all times.
“That’s why I have this fanny pack,” the 67-year-old said as she walked into the church.
She said her Yakima home has been broken into three times over the years, and she came nearly face to face with burglars the last time.
“I came home one day and saw guys carrying stuff off my front porch and I didn’t have my gun with me,” she said. “I said that will never happen again.”
Daylene Ackerman, who isn’t a member of the church, learned of the class from a friend. She’s an experienced shooter as well, but wanted to take a class before applying for a permit to carry a gun.
“I’ve thought about it for a while, but before I do, I’d like to know little more,” the 48-year-old said. “Know the legalities.”
Classes being held at the church are open to anyone — some are free while others require fees from $35 to $80.
“I would much rather see people trained,” Lyon said. “When somebody’s trained, then I know they are responsible and know what to do.”