How this Philly self-defense instructor's training evolves with every new mass shooting

Self defense instructor Edward Iannucci holds a AR-15 training gun during a church guard security training at Bethel Deliverance International Church in Northeast Philadelphia on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. Iannucci has been teaching self-defense for two decades and runs an anti-bullying program for kids in Philly.

It’s a rainy Saturday morning and Ed Iannucci is in the sanctuary of a small church in an unkempt, Northeast strip mall. He’s the only white guy in the room, and he’s holding an AR-15.

The gun is a mock made of polymer, but weighted to feel authentic. On this day, Iannucci, 48, is using the fake to teach a group of church volunteers at Bethel Deliverance International to respond if a person with the real thing enters their sanctuary.

Iannucci has spent the last two decades training Philadelphians how to defend themselves, and these days, as mass shootings continue, that means against an active shooter. With every new shooting, Iannucci’s businesses have shifted to accommodate: Recently, he’s added that mock AR-15 to his arsenal.

“Every time we hit a new level of violence and eventuality,” he said, “our training has to evolve.”

It started in 1997, when he bought a Kim’s Karate branch in Olney — it’s now located in Wyncote — and then soon saw a need for bullying prevention programs. In 2000, he started training bouncers in self-defense and nonlethal tactics. In 2007, it was houses of worship. His own family knows what they’ll do if a guy with a gun enters their home. All of it is to prepare should “Orlando” or “Charleston” become “Philadelphia.”

The burly, 6-foot-1, redheaded Italian, an erudite martial arts master may seem like a walking contradiction: He’s a short-fused, Trump-hating, gun-owning, F150-driving dad from Northeast Philly who knows Japanese, has read the Quran, and gets unreasonably upset that the Jackie Chan version of Karate Kid was really more like Kung Fu Kid.

But he can’t yet seem to train schools for active shooter situations, says the father of two: He can’t bear the thought of a fatal shooting at a school he trained. For years, though, he has taught the children who come to his karate studio a short and simple rhyme — something he hopes they will never have to use.

When you hear the sound, hit the ground.

Keep your eyes up, look around.

“Sometimes in the back of my mind, I regret having to even do it,” he said of his work. “But, like, if not me, who?”

Camera icon CAMERON HART / For the Inquirer
Self-defense instructor Ed Iannucci holds an AR-15 training gun during a church guard security training at Bethel Deliverance International Church in Northeast Philadelphia. As AR-15s became the weapon-of-choice for active shooters, Iannucci has had to change how he trains.

One fall day in 2007, Iannucci was standing in a Bethel Deliverance International Church in Wyncote just past 7:30 a.m., miserable. He had a wine hangover, and the worship songs pounded through his head like nails. The suit collar and tie around his 20-inch neck were making him sweat.

An avowed atheist, Iannucci was the type of guy who would stick his middle finger in the air in a church just to prove that no God existed. (If there were, wouldn’t he smite him?) As a kid raised Catholic, he almost wasn’t confirmed because he wouldn’t stop asking the priest why, if Noah was real, he didn’t have any dinosaurs on the ark.

But Iannucci was there for research. Bishop Eric Lambert, the leader of the Bethel Deliverance International Church system, had sent his son to Kim’s Karate and was so impressed that he wanted to hire Iannucci to train 30 security volunteers at the church. At the time, Lambert was largely concerned with everyday gun violence or someone who wanted to rob the place.

“Our church grew,” Lambert said, “and the risk began to grow with that.”

On that morning, just as Iannucci was about to sneak out the back of the church, Lambert stood at the pulpit and introduced him to the congregation as a friend who was doing good work in the community. So Iannucci stayed, and he listened to Lambert preach from the book of Ecclesiastes: “A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” It was something of an epiphany.

For Iannucci, things changed. He started to believe. Still, he contends that churches must prepare for the worst. It can’t all be in God’s hands. “Angels do not protect us,” he says.

Since then, Iannucci has taught hundreds of volunteers from two dozen Philadelphia-area churches how to respond if someone with a gun enters their space, whether it’s how to shuffle the pastor out of the room or disarm someone hauling an AR-15.

Camera icon CAMERON HART / For the Inquirer
Self defense instructor Ed Iannucci holds a Colt 45 handgun during a church guard security training at Bethel Deliverance International Church in Northeast Philadelphia.

Lambert, one of the city’s most well-known black clergy, calls Iannucci “a brother.” When there’s a high-profile funeral that may attract gang activity at Bethel Deliverance, Iannucci usually is the only white person there. There’s a “Peace Now!” sign on the front of the karate studio that he put up when the Black Lives Matter movement began.

Dealmond Johnson, who’s worked with Iannucci for more than decade and is black, said the fair-skinned Italian has proved he is an ally to the community.

“It has nothing to do with color. It’s the person,” Johnson said. “It’s like ‘Oh, he’s white.’ No, he’s Ed.”

Acceptance — not just between races, but of anyone — is key to ending violence, Iannucci said. It’s a lesson he started to learn when he was 9 years old and a boy from his Garnet Valley community came to the door, ready to fight. With the blessing of his mother — she told the boys she had a “phone in one hand and a shotgun behind the door” — Iannucci fought back. The incessant bullying didn’t stop until high school when Iannucci took up karate, and, from there, gained self-esteem and learned to keep his pride in check.

So, he can teach active shooter drills all he wants. He can ditch the bag he carried emblazoned with “NRA,” as he did this month. But for Iannucci, it comes back to teaching children to just be better to one another.

“If more kids build up their self-esteem at a young age,” he said, there might be fewer kids “growing up and killing people.”