Staffers at the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis decided to compile data on shootings that occur in churches after trying to come up with settings in which shootings don't occur.
"We were having discussions internally about, 'Is there any place that hasn't had mass shootings or mass murders?' and somebody came up with the idea of perhaps churches," says Dallas Drake, the principal researcher for the center, which aims to reduce the homicide rate in the United States. "Of course, we proved that wrong." Indeed, white supremacists have targeted black churches throughout American history. But Drake's National Church Shooting Database, which has collected data about all the shootings at Christian churches that newspapers reported between 1980 and 2005, shows they're no relic of history.
"We were having discussions internally about, 'Is there any place that hasn't had mass shootings or mass murders?' and somebody came up with the idea of perhaps churches. Of course, we proved that wrong."
Insights from the database are especially apt now, in the wake of a shooting at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Nine died in the shooting, including the church's pastor. U.S. authorities said they are investigating the shooting as a hate crime. Many violent crimes that happen in churches likely aren't related to group-based hatred, Drake's data show, but a significant portion are. And despite their generally peaceful purposes, houses of worship seem to encounter a significant amount of violence.
The National Church Shooting Database recorded a total of 139 shootings in churches between 1980 and 2005. In all, 185 people died, including 36 children. These numbers don't include other types of violence that don't involve guns, such as bombings, nor do they include the places of worship of non-Christian faiths, such as synagogues or mosques.
Many of the shootings likely had little to do with race or religion. Drake and his colleagues recorded 23 of them as stemming from intimate partner violence—an abusive partner knows his target will be at church on Sunday morning, for instance, and stalks her there. But 10 of the shootings had to do with "religious differences," and one was coded as a hate crime. Drake's numbers are roughly in line with numbers compiled by Carl Chinn, a church security consultant. Chinn has found that six percent of the violent incidences at houses of worship stem from religious bias.
As many leaders—including President Barack Obama—have commented in the wake of the Charleston shooting, it seems particularly repugnant for someone to murder others in a place where they come to seek peace and a connection to love and justice. Yet churches seem no more protected from violence than any other location. "I don't see that there's really a lot more or that there's a lot less" shootings in churches compared to other public settings, such as stores, workplaces, and schools, Drake says.
In some ways, churches may be especially tempting to shooters. They are typically light on security. Many people come to them at once, at predictable times. And for those who are motivated by hatred of people of a certain color or creed, they also have that crucial symbolic heft.