Good guy, bad guy, guns: Our dilemma

Hero and vil­lain aren’t the end of the de­bate, and we need to have it.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT - Ken Herman

For the NRA, ever on the prowl for proof that pro­lif­er­a­tion is bet­ter when it comes to guns, the hor­ror in a small­town Texas church was a talk­ing point come to life.

A good guy with a gun pro­tected the towns­folk, al­beit af­ter the mas­sacre, but, for all we know, just prior to an­other one down the road.

And be­cause it turned out the mur­derer had weapons the law should have pre­vented him from hav­ing, the hor­rific in­ci­dent also fed the mantra of some Amer­i­cans who are over­pro­tec­tive of gun rights: You need to arm up and pro­tect your­self be­cause you can’t count on your in­ept gov­ern­ment to do it.

It’s a no­tion just short of the one that says you need to arm up to pro­tect your­self against your gov­ern­ment. “Ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with Texas hero,” is how NRATV head­lined its talk with Stephen Wille­ford, the NRA-trained Suther­land Springs res­i­dent who fired on the shooter who had killed 26 and wounded 20 in the lit­tle church.

“Train­ing kicks in and a small-town hero be­comes a com­fort to those in mourn­ing,” trum­peted NRATV host Grant St­inch­field. “We spent the evening with him. He told his story, the one the main­stream me­dia doesn’t want you to hear. A good guy with a gun stopped a bad one.”

(FYI, I think you’ve heard his story from the main­stream me­dia.)

In my view, Wille­ford un­ques­tion­ably is a hero. But his ac­tions raise ques­tions about the “good guy with a gun” no­tion to which I gen­er­ally sub­scribe.

From what we know, Wille---

ford cor­rectly as­sessed the sit­u­a­tion, took his legally owned AR-15 out of a gun safe in his home and fired at the mur­derer, hit­ting him twice and most prob­a­bly con­tribut­ing to, if not sin­gle-hand­edly caus­ing, the end of the ma­ni­a­cal may­hem.

“An AR-15 is much eas­ier to han­dle and much eas­ier to aim,” Wille­ford said of his weapon of choice Sun­day.

I’ll take his word on that, and I’m glad that gun was in the hands of that man at that mo­ment. So is gun owner and Sec­ond Amend­ment ad­vo­cate Rep. Pon­cho Nevárez, D-Ea­gle Pass, who was among law­mak­ers and oth­ers at a Wed­nes­day Capitol news con­fer­ence in fa­vor of laws they be­lieve can cur­tail mass shoot­ings.

“That’s part of the story,” Nevárez said when I asked about the “good guy with a gun” por­tion of this mass shoot­ing. “A gen­tle­man came out and once the (mur­derer) drew fire he ran be­cause he wasn’t ex­pect­ing any re­sis­tance. Of course that’s part of the story. But let’s talk about that good gen­tle­man . ... Where did he get his gun from? He had to get it out of a safe, put the clip in and run across the street. He wasn’t wan­der­ing around his neigh­bor­hood with an AR-15.

“I agree with the NRA,” he said. “That is a good gun owner. That gun was where it was sup­posed to be, in the safe.”

Good, in­deed. But can the case be made that it would have been even bet­ter if this good gen­tle­man had been wan­der­ing around his neigh­bor­hood with an AR-15? If he had been, could he have in­ter­vened sooner and saved more lives?

Also Wed­nes­day, Nevárez of­fered the unas­sail­able be­lief there’s no rea­son any­body needs to be walk­ing around with a ri­fle. Many Tex­ans, es­pe­cially ur­ban ones, are sur­prised no li­cense is needed to walk around with a loaded ri­fle.

“You don’t need your gun other than when you buy it and take it out of the store, take it to the shoot­ing range or take it to hunt,” Nevárez said. “There’s no rea­son to be parad­ing around with it.”

Ni­cole Golden of Moms De­mand Ac­tion for Gun Sense in Amer­ica echoed that, say­ing, “The open carry of ri­fles has never been ad­dressed in Texas and it’s high time we walked back that out­dated prac­tice.”

As I’ve es­poused be­fore, guns are a so­ci­etal Rorschach test, per­ceived dif­fer­ently by dif­fer­ent peo­ple in dif­fer­ent parts of the state. What’s jar­ring, gun­wise, on Congress Av­enue in down­town Austin prob­a­bly is less so in down­town Muleshoe. State law should ac­knowl­edge this by al­low­ing lo­cal con­trol of some gun laws.

Wille­ford’s heroic ac­tions also force us to con­front the fine line be­tween hero and vig­i­lante. In many cases, the for­mer is the lat­ter who’s proven to have acted within the law, in­clud­ing split-sec­ond de­cid­ing when lethal force is proper.

Try this sce­nario: What if a third shooter, who saw noth­ing other than Wille­ford fir­ing on a flee­ing man, per­ceived in the heat of the mo­ment that Wille­ford was the crim­i­nal and the flee­ing man was the vic­tim? What if, for the fleet­ing mo­ment, the good guy with a gun looked like a bad guy with a gun?

I think back to a 2015 Texas Se­nate com­mit­tee meet­ing at which McLen­nan County Sher­iff Par­nell McNa­mara, tes­ti­fy­ing in fa­vor of the cam­pus carry pro­vi­sion, said cops of­ten are not first re­spon­ders.

“The po­lice can’t be ev­ery­where at once,” he told sen­a­tors. “The vic­tims are the first re­spon­ders, not the po­lice . ... We come in at the tail end of it and try to fig­ure out who did it and bring them to jus­tice.”

So what’s an armed cit­i­zen to do?

Austin’s in­terim po­lice Chief Brian Man­ley, quoted by my col­league Tony Plo­het­ski, says such peo­ple “have proven them­selves to be very help­ful.”

But in in­ter­ven­ing, he cau­tions, they must re­al­ize their ac­tions will be sub­ject to civil and crim­i­nal law re­view. You bet­ter be sure you’re shoot­ing some­body who needs shoot­ing. Even cops some­times get that wrong.

We all know there’s no, par­don the ex­pres­sion, sin­gle magic bul­let that’s go­ing to end mass mur­ders (or in­di­vid­ual ones). There’s a gun law com­po­nent. There’s a men­tal health com­po­nent. There’s a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence com­po­nent. And we could use some help from Hol­ly­wood lib­er­als who be­moan gun vi­o­lence but seem OK with prof­it­ing from movies that por­tray such vi­o­lence in ways that can’t help.

Let’s talk.

Guns are per­ceived dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent parts of the state. What’s jar­ring, gun-wise, on Congress Av­enue in down­town Austin is less so in down­town Muleshoe.



State Rep. Pon­cho Nevárez, D-Ea­gle Pass, is joined by Reps. Ni­cole Col­lier, D-Fort Worth, (left) and Gina Hi­no­josa, D-Austin, as he speaks at the Texas Capitol on Wed­nes­day dur­ing a news con­fer­ence about re­ex­am­in­ing state gun laws in the wake of the mas­sacre at Suther­land Springs.

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