Undersheriff: California church parishioners showed "exceptional heroism" in fighting back against attacker

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

A shooting at a Laguna Beach, California church on Sunday would have been much worse if not for the “exceptional heroism” shown by parishioners and the church pastor, according to Orange County undersheriff Jeff Hallock, who says members of the congregation fought back after a man in his 60’s opened fire as congregants were holding a luncheon following the Sunday morning service.

According to one law enforcement source who spoke to the Los Angeles Times, the attacker had locked the doors to the church before he opened fire, apparently hoping to block church members from fleeing the attack.

The congregation had just finished eating lunch — a special bento with teriyaki chicken — and were taking photos with a pastor who was returning after two years in Taiwan when the shooting began, said Jerry Chen, 72, who was in a nearby kitchen at the time.

“I heard the gun sounds,” he said. “Then I heard two or three more gunshots. He was just randomly shooting. I saw some people fall down or go under the table. I knew something was wrong. I called 911.”

The pastor hit the gunman with a chair when the shooter paused to reload his weapon, Chen said, and other members of the congregation tackled him.

The injured — four men ages 66, 92, 82 and 75, and an 86-year-old woman — were all Asian, officials said. All five were shot and four sustained critical injuries.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department detained the suspect, an Asian man in his 60s, and recovered two commercially available handguns from the scene, officials said. The suspect is not likely from this area, they said.

Parishioners say they had never seen the attacker before Sunday morning, though he allegedly told them he had visited the church several times before. A motive for the attack remains unknown at this time, but it’s pretty clear that his intention was to murder as many of the congregation as he could.

Chen, who was working in the kitchen when the first shots rang out, told media that it was actually the church’s former pastor, who had returned to the United States from Taiwan for the first time in two years after serving the congregation for two decades, who used a chair to hit the shooter, providing others with the opportunity to tackle him.

Fellow congregants told Chen that when the gunman stopped to reload, Pastor Chang hit him on the head with a chair while others moved quickly to grab his gun. They then subdued him and tied him up, Chen said.

“It was amazing how brave (Chang) and the others were,” he said. “This is just so sad. I never, ever thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community.”

Most of the church’s members are elderly, highly educated Taiwanese immigrants, Chen said.

“We’re mostly retirees and the average age of our church is 80,” he said.

If the only self-defense tool you have at hand is a chair, you use the chair. But in a country where the right to keep and bear arms in self-defense is protected by the Constitution and exercised by tens of millions of law-abiding Americans every day, I hope that more churches and houses of worship have a serious conversation about using armed parishioners as security. Yes, the odds of an attack like this happening are extraordinarily low, but they’re not non-existent. The debate isn’t over whether or not we want people to fight back when their lives are threatened. It’s whether or not we want them to be able to fight back as effectively as possible if, God forbid, they’re ever the target of a killer.