When a bad guy with a gun opened fire in a small Texas church, a good guy with an AR-15 put a stop to the attack. Still, many in the media don’t want to admit the truth.
This feature appears in the January '18 issue of NRA America’s 1st Freedom, one of the official journals of the National Rifle Association.
By now, most gun owners and shooters are aware that a citizen armed with an AR-15 rifle shot the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church attacker. That citizen, NRA member and former NRA-certified firearm instructor Stephen Willeford, lives just down the road from the church and was instrumental in stopping the attack. But while their anti-gun narratives prevented most mainstream media outlets from acknowledging his actions, Willeford is a prime example of a good guy with a gun stopping a very bad guy with a gun.
Photo by Josh Huskin
Good Guy With A Gun On that fateful morning, when a deranged gunman opened fire on worshippers in the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church and killed 26 innocent people, Willeford was at home with one of his daughters. His daughter had heard the commotion and had driven her car to the church to see what was happening. She raced back and told Willeford, “There’s a man in black tactical gear shooting up the Baptist church!”
Willeford, a lifelong resident of the close-knit community near San Antonio, knew he had to do something.
“Those people are my friends. Those people have known my family. Those people have been here for generations,” Willeford said in an interview with NRATV. “I kept hearing those shots, and I knew every shot might be representing another person getting hit by a bullet.”
Willeford quickly knew what he needed to do.
But while their anti-gun narratives prevented most mainstream media outlets from acknowledging his actions, Willeford is a prime example of a good guy with a gun stopping a very bad guy with a gun.“When my daughter ran in and said the man was in tactical gear with a helmet and body armor, I opened up the safe and pulled out an AR-15,” he said. “An AR-15 is much easier to handle and much easier to aim. I grabbed a handful of ammunition—I was hearing shot after shot after shot, and I didn’t want to waste time loading a full magazine.”
With no time to even put on his shoes, Willeford ran barefoot out the door and positioned himself behind a neighbor’s pickup for cover.
“I saw this gray SUV setting out front in the street, with the engine running and the driver’s side door open,” he said. “And as soon as I came up behind the pickup truck—it was a neighbor’s truck—[the attacker] came running from around the front of the SUV and turned to get into the SUV.”
All Willeford was able to see at this point was that the man had a pistol in one hand and was wearing a bulletproof vest.
“He saw me and we exchanged gunfire,” Willeford said. “And he got in his vehicle and he shot two rounds through the side window. And I saw very distinctively two rounds come through the window.
“I shot through the window with my rifle, and the window collapsed down when I did. I took another shot, and he drove off and turned down 539.”
Police would later reveal that Willeford had hit the gunman twice. Nobody knows whether the killer intended to go back in and kill the rest of the church members or whether he had another target in mind—but Willeford’s quick thinking didn’t leave him that option.
Finishing The Job
After the killer fled, Willeford flagged down a man in a nearby vehicle, Johnnie Langendorff, who had seen the gun battle.
“I ran over and tapped on his window and I said, ‘That man just shot up the Baptist church and we have to stop him,’” Willeford said. “He opened his door. This was a crazy thing to open a door for a man with a rifle that you just saw in a shootout. But he opened his door and I got in. And we gave chase.”
Willeford and Langendorff chased the murderer at speeds up to 95 mph for several miles before he veered off the road and wrecked his SUV in a ditch. The culprit then turned his gun on himself, ending the tragedy.
Largely ignoring the bravery displayed by Willeford and Langendorff, the so-called “mainstream” media instead attempted to demonize the AR-15 style rifle, despite the gun’s role in halting the attack. That anti-gun focus is an irritant to Mike Jordan, Willeford’s friend, neighbor and sometimes shooting companion.
“The liberal media want to spin this. They want to make the ‘bad AR-15’ sound like such a bad thing,” Jordan told Grant Stinchfield in an NRATV interview the next day. “But they need to know that a good person with an AR-15 … stopped any further attack.
“If he had not fired that round, if he had not shot that guy and got his attention away from what he was doing, he could have easily walked back in.”“If he had not fired that round, if he had not shot that guy and got his attention away from what he was doing, he could have easily walked back in,” Jordan said. “He could have gone back into the church again. He could have finished off everyone in there.”
In fact, Willeford had yelled, “Hey,” and the gunman had exited the church and began the exchange of gunfire before speeding away.
Trust Your Training
What many in the media don’t realize is that law-abiding gun owners like Willeford take their responsibility very seriously. They handle their guns carefully. They maintain them diligently. They train with them regularly.
Willeford, for example, shoots regularly, both recreationally and in competition with friends. And the lessons he has learned from extensive training were critical to his reaction—and success—when the madman attacked church members.
“It’s fun, but it’s also training,” Willeford said of shooting at least weekly with friends. “You’re having fun, but you’re also learning your firearm and training. And how many people do you think now find that really important? I would hope that a lot of people think that’s important now.”
Willeford said people had told him before that if he were ever in a real armed self-defense shooting situation, he’d likely freeze up.
“I said, ‘You know, it might happen.’ But, I said, ‘Think about karate.’ Each belt advancement that you do, you’re doing on a floor, not sparring with anyone else. You’re doing those moves to practice those moves. And what you’re doing is training your subconscious mind,” he said.
“And then, if you get into a fight, your subconscious mind takes over, and when somebody throws a punch, you sweep it away. And I said, ‘Think about what you’re doing when you’re training.’ When panic mode goes on, your conscious mind kicks off and your subconscious mind does what it’s trained to do. And if you don’t have good training, it won’t know what to do. And I always said, I hope I never have to know. Sunday, I found out. And I didn’t freeze up.”
Spin By Gun Haters
While most people who know the facts of the incident have lauded Willeford as a hero—a moniker Stephen detests—some in the left-wing media and gun-ban groups claim he didn’t play much of a role in stopping the shooting. They claim the shooting was already over despite the fact they can’t have known what was in the murderer’s mind, and that he still had several guns and many rounds of ammunition on hand.
In fact, some in the media would like you to believe that there was not even an armed citizen who played a role in stopping the shooting. On MSNBC’s “Meet The Press Daily,” New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor even claimed that Willeford did not shoot at the murderer and did not stop his rampage. That was a lie that host Chuck Todd didn’t even try to question, instead saying, “The narrative here as you saw with Mike Huckabee and the president is a little bit off the rails.”
The lessons he has learned from extensive training were critical to his reaction—and success—when the madman attacked church members.Of course, what would you expect when one fake news source appears on programming hosted by another? Even the outlets that didn’t out-and-out lie went the extra mile to try to minimize Willeford’s contribution.
The Washington Post, in a snarky story headlined, “When a bystander fired on the Texas church shooter, the NRA found its hero,” unfairly painted the NRA as an opportunistic organization that politicizes tragedy—actually a tactic straight out of the anti-gun organizations’ playbook. In so doing, the Post dismissed all the other Armed Citizen heroes that we write about on a near daily basis, and have featured in every issue of this magazine since its launch back in June of 2000.
The Post even stated, “A good guy with a gun, along with his National Rifle Association training, stopped a bad guy with a gun, according to the NRA.” (Emphasis added.) Of course, even local law enforcement lauded Willeford for stopping the attack. But the Post couldn’t mention that fact, since it doesn’t play into their anti-gun narrative.
Along with attempting to downplay the importance of a good guy with a gun, media and other gun-ban advocates immediately went into full crisis mode, calling for every gun control scheme they’ve ever pushed to be instituted immediately.
They didn’t wait to find out that the killer had passed background checks to buy his firearms. They didn’t wait to learn that the murderer should have been banned from owning firearms, but the background check system had approved him due to an oversight by Air Force personnel in not reporting important information. They couldn’t be troubled to wait long enough to realize that the shooter was both disturbed and evil, and had targeted the church because of the hatred of his ex-mother-in-law, who sometimes attended services there.
No, despite an armed citizen intervening and no new law that could have kept the killer from doing what he did, anti-gun advocates used the entire episode to further claim that guns are just too dangerous, and laws must be passed immediately—especially for so-called “assault weapons.”
Not So Fast
Yet those directly involved in the shooting, including victims and police officers who arrived on the scene shortly after Willeford and Langendorff chased down the culprit, don’t see it that way. Living in America’s heartland, they understand there’s much more to private gun ownership than liberal media members on the coast, who live in gated communities with their own armed guards, would have you believe.
Farida Brown is an excellent example. The 73-year-old woman was sure she would never leave the church alive as she huddled by another woman beneath the pews in the First Baptist Church. She had already been shot four times in the legs, and the killer was walking around, trying to find survivors to finish off. According to Farida’s son David Brown, who spoke to the media on her behalf while she recovered in the hospital, the gunman had just fired four shots into the woman lying on the ground right beside her.
“Then she thought that it was her turn,” the younger Brown told The Washington Post. “She just started praying.”
At that moment, he said, his mother heard a shot fired from a different man. What Brown had heard was Willeford putting a stop to what could have been a much worse massacre had the murderer been allowed to continue the attack.
As for the law enforcement officers arriving on the scene shortly after the crash, they also saw Willeford’s presence with a gun as a positive thing. Willeford had his attention intently trained on the murderer’s vehicle, wondering if there would be another gunfight or not. He was so focused on the vehicle that he didn’t know officers had arrived on the scene.
“I heard a PA system say, ‘Driver, get out of the truck with your hands up,’” Willeford said. “He said it a second time, and I laid the rifle on the hood and started to walk to the back of the truck with my hands in the air. He said, ‘Not you,’ and I’m like, fine. And I went back over and I grabbed my rifle and put it back over the hood of the truck.
“At that point, I realized there was only one police car there and I might still be of some sort of use. And apparently, he thought I might be some sort of use also, at that point. And we waited there until about five or six more squad cars came.”
To Willeford, it was a heartening reminder that law-abiding armed citizens—while scorned by those on the anti-gun side of the equation—are appreciated by those in law enforcement, who put their lives on the line every day in service to others.
“What people need to know is that us people that aren’t law enforcement—the regular NRA members—law enforcement officers aren’t afraid of our guns,” he said. “That became evident when I put that rifle down on the hood of the truck and started walking back and he said, ‘Not you.’ He knew who I was and he knew that I had chased the guy there.”
A Proud NRA Member
America’s nearly 5 million NRA members have been the subject of a lot of cheap shots over the past few years, with haters blaming them for more than a few mass shootings—none of which were committed by members of the Association. NRA members were even blamed by some celebrities and those in the media for the Sutherland Springs murder spree, despite that fact that it was an NRA member who ended the attack.
“I turned his fight into flight. I did what I had to do.”But that liberal narrative doesn’t stop Willeford from being proud of his longtime membership in the NRA. And he isn’t slow to let people know about it.
“I’ve been a member for a very long time,” he said. “I love the magazines. I kind of like to read the Armed Citizen section, and get talking about people using their firearms to end death. And I never thought that I would be even considered for the Armed Citizen, you know.”
Not wanting to be in the limelight and realizing that many in the media would likely spin his action into some anti-gun plea, Willeford was very careful about who he spoke to following the shooting. While many reporters loitered around town and even around his property wanting to speak to him, he invited NRATV in for a nearly hour-long interview, trusting the Second Amendment news outlet to get the story right, not turn the situation into a political football.
“First off, I don’t even want the spotlight,” he said. “What should be in the spotlight is this community and what happened over there. The pastor’s 14-year-old daughter was killed while he and his wife were in Oklahoma. A whole family—four children and two adults—was murdered by this idiot. And people want to talk gun control. And they’re worried about my rifle!”
In the end, the soft-spoken Texan did what he felt he had to do with the best tool he had on hand—an AR-15—and likely saved many lives in the process. A fan of the saying “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Willeford was thrust into a nightmarish situation and was able to make a difference when the chips were down.
“I stopped his aggression and made him run,” he said. “I turned his fight into flight. I did what I had to do.
“I never, ever thought that I would be that guy.”
Mark Chesnut has been the editor of America’s 1st Freedom magazine for 17 years and is an avid hunter, shooter and political observer.