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Oakwood Baptist trains reaction team to protect church from armed threat
Decision to create team came after passage of Safe Carry Protection Act
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Chief Rodney Smith gives instructions to trainees Tuesday during a firearms certification test at Oakwood Baptist Church in Flowery Branch. The training session with Georgia Firearms and Security Training Academy concluded on Tuesday with a written test and a test on the shooting range for attendees to become certified. - photo by Erin O. Smith

A pastor, a 75-year-old Navy chief and a hunter line up at the firing range. Their mission: learning how best to protect their church from an armed threat.

The three men take aim outside of Oakwood Baptist Church, where the Rev. Brian Evans and a handful of his church members trained in active shooter scenarios and situational awareness.

“The Scripture says ‘The prudent man seeth evil afar off’— in other words you see it coming and you try to prepare yourself,” Evans said.

The decision to create a church response team came after the passage of the “Safe Carry Protection Act,” which expanded the areas of firearms carry in Georgia including churches, bars and schools. Evans chose to allow firearms in his church, and a few months ago decided to have some members trained how to respond to a threat.

“I picked men that I knew were either already licensed to carry and going to be carrying anyway, and then a few guys who were not licensed to carry yet but were in the process, and I felt like they were level-headed enough to not react badly,” he said.

The 15 members in the reaction force training gathered Tuesday for the final night of certification, where each took a written test as well as a shooting target.

“We try to train them to where they look to see the trouble before it materializes,” said instructor Rodney Smith of Georgia Firearms and Security Training Academy.

From 15 yards out, Smith shouted over the protective earmuffs to fire into center mass.

“Get back in the fight,” Smith said, as the men dropped empty magazines and pulled a new set from their pockets.

At the 3-yard line, the men practice shooting from the draw.

Even at 75, Linwood “Chief” Jeffries said there’s still much to be learned about firearms. A retired Navy man with 22 years of service, the nine-year member of Oakwood Baptist Church wheeled up to the firing range on a power scooter, saying he’d recommend the training to anyone who wanted to shoot proficiently.

“There are four things I defend in my life: my home, my church, my state and my country,” Jeffries said. “I defended my country for 22 years. State, I pay my taxes and I’ll defend it. My home, that’s mine. My church, that’s my family also.”

In defending his church, Evans said the decision for training came around May, a month before the shooting in Charleston, S.C.

“Charleston ... if I had any doubt, it would have sealed it,” he said of the shooting where nine people were killed by a gunman.

Wanting “trained guns over untrained guns” on his side in case of emergency, Evans said he plans to divide the certified men from last week’s meeting into teams.

Though not as mobile as in his younger years, Jeffries said he hopes to still be used outside of the more physical tasks like clearing a room.

“Because of my back and knees, I can’t do that. But I can still stand outside and protect outside or the inside,” he said.

With 6« years in the Army and an upbringing around hunting, Tim Autry said he can’t “remember a time not having a gun.”

“One of the biggest things I got was training to shoot and move at the same time,” Autry said. “As a hunter, you’re always shooting standing still. In the military, they taught us to shoot in different positions but always still.”

Like many others receiving training, Autry said the four weeks and 22 hours of training working with Smith’s team gave him more confidence in a dangerous situation protecting his family and church.

“It’s unfortunate but I think our society has reached that point where in order for me and my family to feel safe, I have to be armed,” Autry said.

Almost anytime but on Sunday, Evans keeps his sidearm holstered on the hip. Carrying during the service still makes Evans uncomfortable, he said, when he can have a dozen or so trained team members.

“It’s just a little distracting to me have to think about it being there,” Evans said. “I want to focus on what I’m doing and not have to think about if someone’s seeing this or what they would think.”

Following certification, Smith brought the team back for one last Powerpoint presentation and last tips. Of major importance was keeping control of entry points and looking for anyone and anything that looks suspicious, even when the prayer begins.

“God’s going to love you for looking around,” Smith said.

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