The NRA magazine American Rifleman has a regular column called “The Armed Citizen,” which consists of “amazing stories which highlight accounts of law-abiding gun owners in America using their Second Amendment rights for self-defense” against robbers, rapists, burglars, and other assailants. American Rifleman doesn’t have a similar column with accounts of spouses shooting one another, jealous lovers shooting their exes, alcohol-fueled shootings on Saturday night, workplace revenge massacres, or children accidentally shooting their playmates, but no matter. The NRA is an advocacy organization putting out the best side of its story of armed self-reliance.
The recent massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had a genuine armed citizen, who shows what the good guy with a gun can and cannot accomplish. We’re not talking about the gunman, whose name we will not mention. We’re talking about Stephen Willeford, a neighbor of the church, who heard the commotion, ran outside with his own rifle, and started shooting at the fleeing killer, who drove away. Willeford and another neighbor then gave chase. His shots wounded the fugitive twice, and the man crashed his car and then blew his brains out rather than face capture. Willeford is a genuine hero, who rightly read the situation and risked his life to protect his community. He is as good an example of an armed citizen as we are likely to find outside of Hollywood fiction. Without asking to be, he is a poster boy for the NRA’s vision of an armed society. He is also a perfect illustration of its limits.
The gunman was a genuinely evil man full of rage. He spent a year in military prison after beating his first wife and her son so badly that he fractured the boy’s skull. He was estranged from his second wife, not surprisingly, and had repeatedly threatened her mother with death. Yet he was somehow able to buy an assault rifle with detachable 30 round magazines for quick reloading. Even if his court martial conviction had been in the central records system, as it should have been, such weapons can be bought at gun shows without any waiting period for records review, and the floating supply is so ample that they can probably be acquired informally without much trouble.
The assault rifle allowed the gunman to shoot fast and straight at a church full of innocent worshipers and kill 26 of them, including 13 children. As a man who had grown up in rural Texas, he surely knew that a neighbor, a passerby, or even one of the congregation might have been armed and fought back, perhaps with an assault rifle of their own. That prospect deterred him not at all. Willeford’s readiness and courage could intervene after the fact, but it could not prevent an enraged man from turning his rage into mass murder in the first place. Only sensible firearms law in a sane culture could do that. We have neither.
No doubt we will be told by doctrinaires, as they have told us before, that these massacres are the price of freedom to go armed, and that the answer is for good citizens to embrace that freedom and go armed ourselves to church, to school, to the movies and about our daily business. There was once a Scottish regiment, the Cameronians, who went armed to church and posted pairs of armed sentries at the four corners of the church at every service. They were recruited from a dissenting Christian sect that had been persecuted in the 17th century, and their tradition of posting sentries came from the illegal and secret services they held in the woods, swamps and fields before the Stuarts were overthrown. Apparently we must all become as wary as Cameronians now, or take our chances.