Sutherland Springs: Lessons from the Ashes

A week after the events in Sutherland Springs, Texas the community is beginning the painful path of healing and recovery after 26 members of the small 600 person town were killed. I urge all the readers here to take the time to listen to the full interview with Stephen Willeford above and, especially as a wider community of firearms owners, absorb the full weight of what this man has to say and what this incident highlights as stark realities.

1. The Will to Act

After Stephen was informed by his daughter that gunshots were heard and confirmed them for himself he made several reactive decisions.

Stephen immediately made preparations to move toward the church and he occupied his daughter to keep her safe. Stephen was an NRA instructor and had likely, at least passively, brain stormed reactive scenarios to the common self defense archetypes of robbery, home invasion, car-jacking, etc.

Only Stephen knows everything he had prepared prior, but what we do know is that it was enough for him to react. Stephen Willeford’s courageous actions are a model for why the Second Amendment is codified in our Constitution.

Defense of Self, Community, and Country.

Stephen saved lives because of his will to act.

Lesson: When you must act. Act now. Paralysis in the face of danger will result in more lives lost.

2. Preparation

Looking deeper into Stephen Willeford and Johnnie Langendorff’s selfless actions to intercede and protect their community we can draw lessons for the future.

Willeford had to take time and load a magazine. In addition he had to do so under the extreme duress of hearing each shot in his own words “meant for somebody else” that Kelley fired inside the church and take action to keep his daughter safe at his home.

This combination had the 55 year old man leaving his house with a partially filled magazine in his rifle and no shoes. At the lethal conclusion outside of town, Stephen checked his magazine and found 1 round remaining.

He was two shots away from being out of the fight against an enemy who had two handguns and plenty of ammunition. Both of those were unknown quantities at the time. Kelley luckily didn’t retain his rifle after being shot twice by Willeford outside the church, but Kelley’s preparation for the fight was perilously close to outlasting Willeford’s and that could have reversed the momentum of the fight back to Kelley’s advantage.

Lesson: Firearms used or staged for defense should be staged at the ready. Having a full magazine or more next to a weapon ready to be brought to bear or keeping the weapon in Condition 3 (full magazine, empty chamber) or Condition 1 (full magazine, loaded chamber) will drastically reduce the time it takes to bring the weapon into the fight and how capable and enduring it is when it gets there.

The time difference between grabbing 60 rounds loaded into two magazines (or other prepared ammunition source) and having to individually load rounds into a magazine, each taking a second or two, is glaringly immense. In the time it takes to ready three rounds into an empty magazine someone can grab multiple ready items properly staged for emergency.

You wouldn’t want to assemble an AED when you need it or fill up a fire extinguisher when the blaze starts. Treat your defensive firearms accordingly.

NOTE: This is in no way to negatively criticize the actions of Stephen Willeford or imply he should have gotten their faster. Willeford’s actions are nothing short of heroic. He is the embodiment of the “I’ll go. Send me. I will fight. Not today.” mentalities that move people to great deeds in times of crisis. 

3. The Limitations of the Law

Gun Control made its way into the narrative surrounding this immediately. In certain cases to an almost tragically comic degree of foolishness. See Chain Saw Bayonet, in similar fashion to silencers being blamed in Las Vegas or the bump stock animation that had everything but a bumpstock.

What we do have is a tragic illustration in the limitations that are imposed since systems are only as good as the records that are kept.

Kelley had two for certain, maybe three, disqualifying factors that made his purchase and possession of all firearms illegal.

  1. Domestic Violence Conviction.
  2. Dishonorable/Bad Conduct Discharge from the Military
  3. Involuntary commitment to a mental institution (uncomfirmed, but it was reported he escaped from a facility)

However the two, possible three, disqualifying conditions were never added into the NICS background check system and obviously Kelley did not out himself as a convict to any of his points of sale where he purchased weapons.

The U.S. Air Force is looking into why the records didn’t make it to NICS but the rumor mill is the typical records mismanagement, loss, and lack of priority that is systemic in the military. Ask any Veteran how good the records are… ask me how many times I’ve had to confirm my compliance with a simple upcoming update to the retirement system (five) and those records were lost.

NICS can only catch what it knows. NICS only knows what people tell it. People are fallible and therefore the system is imperfect. NICS cannot catch everything, it cannot predict, it cannot catch false or improper records, it cannot come back with information that it does not have.

Lesson: The Government (Air Force) dropped the ball on this one. But improper reporting and other records errors are an ongoing problem combined with a record lack of prosecution of 4473/NICS violations by prohibited persons. The culture around lying to acquire a firearm has, for years at this point, fostered a “you’ll get away with it so don’t worry” attitude.

Where records and systems fail people must respond and succeed.

There is plenty more we can dig into including physical security, first aid, and media response but those will be for another time.

Keith Finch
Keith is the former Editor-in-Chief of GAT Marketing Agency, Inc. He got told there was a mountain of other things that needed doing, so he does those now and writes here when he can. A USMC Infantry Veteran and Small Arms and Artillery Technician, Keith covers the evolving training and technology from across the shooting industry. Teaching since 2009, he covers local concealed carry courses, intermediate and advanced rifle courses, handgun, red dot handgun, bullpups, AKs, and home defense courses for civilians, military client requests, and law enforcement client requests.