This November 5th marks the five-year anniversary of the shootings at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, where a man wearing military-grade body armor shot and killed twenty-six parishioners. AMAC had the opportunity to talk with Stephen Willeford, the hero whose quick actions wounded the shooter and drew him away from the church.
Stephen Willeford is a former plumber who is employed by the Gun Owners of America (GOA) serving as the group’s national spokesperson and grassroots liaison. He is also an AMAC member, and he shares his thoughts on how this transformative experience changed his life. This “good guy with a gun” also discusses his views on the Uvalde, Texas school shooting, gun violence, recent gun legislation, and the Second Amendment.
AMAC: It has been almost five years since you confronted the mass shooter at the First Baptist Church in your hometown. How has this experience influenced your life moving forward?
Stephen: Wow. So, nothing is the same anymore. I used to be a plumber at a major metropolitan hospital working maintenance, and now I travel the country and fight for our right to keep and bear arms and train churches to set up safety response teams, and that is what I do for a living now. I would say I am more aware of what is around me. Although I was pretty aware before that happened also. But my life has totally changed.
AMAC: Can you tell us how you think the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas was handled?
Stephen: Well, you know, I usually try to give the police department a lot of credit. There were so many failures. It’s ridiculous that a lady ran in where the Uvalde Police Department refused to. She ran in and got her children and other children out safely, which is unacceptable. The police should have been handling and gotten in there much sooner. They could have been in within 3 minutes, and they were not.
But this does talk to the idea that you are your own first responder. You cannot bet on the police department to save you, you’re going to have to save yourself and in this case, your community. Also, I would hope that the police are better trained than what happened in Uvalde, and for the most part, they are. I usually give them the benefit of the doubt, but in this case, they failed miserably.
AMAC: What, in your opinion, can be done to discourage gun violence in schools?
Stephen: We need to start training our teachers to be able to carry within their classrooms. Again, like I say, when seconds count, police are only minutes away. And we need to train our teachers and our staff, their staff members, and the school faculty need to understand and be aware and need to be able to carry within schools.
We need to be able to lock our [school] doors. And that was a major failing. Alarms should have been going off. There should be no reason that we leave our doors for schools unlocked. There should be school resource officers at any door. And we need to do away with gun-free zones and allow parents, when dropping off and picking up their children, to be able to carry.
AMAC: Is the root of the many problems we are facing as a society now something deeper than government has the capacity to address?
Stephen: Well, the government has been trying to divide us in social and economic ways, and they’ve been trying to divide races for so long. They have created that. And I truly believe that they they’re trying to make it where police are the bad guys and defund the police. But they do not need to defund them. They actually need to fund them more, give them better training and better tools. But they need to make it where police are not afraid to respond.
Police nowadays are afraid of doing the right thing, afraid they will get prosecuted themselves. And it’s time that we get back to respecting police and the government isn’t the answer. Ronald Reagan said it best when he said the government’s the problem, not the answer, not the solution.
AMAC: Do you think the bipartisan gun legislation signed by Joe Biden in June will have an effect on gun violence?
Stephen: Absolutely I think it will. I think it [gun violence] will absolutely go up. I think that red flag laws without due process, you know, this country was founded on due process and being innocent until proven guilty, and red flag laws negate that. In Maryland, there was a case where a mother-in-law claimed that her ex-son-in-law was violent and dangerous and had guns. They kicked in his door in a no-knock warrant. He came out not knowing it was the police with a pistol in the hand [and] they shot and killed him. And that was unfortunate. He had never committed a felony in his life. And it was just from the word of his ex-mother-in- law that got that warrant to be served.
We in America have the right to the assumption of innocent until proven guilty. Red flag laws tend to come in and take all your guns and your property away, and then you must prove that you’re okay and that costs money. So red flag laws are not the answer. They want to make it harder for 18-year-olds to own semi-automatic rifles and pistols. And I have a problem with that, because 18-year-olds serve our country in foreign lands with a fully automatic M-16 and drive M-1 Abrams tanks. This is not a maturity issue. This is a mental health issue. The shooter in Sutherland Springs was 26 years old. The shooter in Vegas was 60 something years old. It is not maturity. It is mental health.
AMAC: So,you think that gun violence will go up because of this bipartisan legislation?
Stephen: Any time you restrict good guys from having guns, that creates a problem where no one can stop a shooter. Case in point, the Buffalo, New York shooting where the guy [shooter] went specifically knowing that [area] was the lowest percentage of concealed permits in the United States. And so, his numbers were up because no one can defend themselves.
AMAC: How can law abiding gun owners protect themselves from the attacks on their right to bear arms?
Stephen: Well, they need to get with their legislators, the federal government, and they need to push their state representatives, especially their state representatives. They need to push for more freedom to be able to carry and to stop the infringement. They need to get active in the political realm. They need to support groups like the GOA.
AMAC: Final question, Stephen. What does the Second Amendment mean to you?
Stephen: The Second Amendment does not grant the right to keep and bear arms, because anything granted by the government can be taken away. Instead, the Second Amendment is recognizing that we have a God-given right to bear arms for protection and stop tyrannical government. What the Second Amendment does is restrict the government from infringing upon the God-given right we have to keep and bear arms.