A Brief History
On November 5, 2017, US citizen and former NRA shooting instructor, Stephen Willeford, stopped a mass murderer in his tracks when Willeford employed his own AR-15 style rifle to stop a gunman that had just shot and killed 26 people. Gun advocates and 2nd Amendment supporters are often heard saying, “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” (Or words similar in effect.) Anti-gun people often scoff at that assertion, but in the case of the tragic Sutherland Springs Church Shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas (30 miles East of San Antonio) that particular quote had never been more correct.
In a classic case of government bureaucracy dropping the ball, the US Air Force failed to pass along information to the FBI about an airman that had been convicted of domestic violence in a Court Martial trial, information that should have become part of the national data base of persons prohibited from buying, owning, or possessing a firearm. Devin Patrick Kelley was an obviously dangerous person, not only because of his conviction for domestic violence against his wife, but also because he had been caught smuggling guns aboard an Air Force base in violation of the rules and the fact that he threatened the lives of superior officers. Kelley also had threatened to harm himself and was sent to a mental health facility in New Mexico in 2011 where he told mental health therapists that he wanted to get revenge against his Air Force superiors. Kelley escaped from the mental health facility but was recaptured. (Seriously, at this point should this guy not have been clearly placed on the no guns list???) It was also discovered that Kelley had ordered weapons and “tactical gear” online, sent to a post office box to hide his involvement. Kelley was convicted of assaulting his wife and stepson, as well as threatening his wife with a loaded gun. He was sentenced to a year in jail and given a Bad Conduct Discharge.
Kelley was released from jail and proceeded to become the target of investigation for sexual assault, including rape, against his girlfriend and later another woman. A lack of cooperation by the victims led to a dismissal of charges, although Kelley’s ex-wife (his first wife had divorced him) gave a statement that Kelley had abused her in various ways, including water boarding! In 2014 Kelley picked up a conviction for cruelty to animals in Colorado where he had moved with his new wife and in 2015 another citizen applied for a court protection order against Kelley.
Kelley moved back to Texas and briefly attended a Baptist Church as a parishioner before quitting the church and apparently becoming an atheist. Kelley moved back in with his parents in New Braunfels, Texas and lied on government forms in order to land a job as a security guard. (He had previously worked for 6 weeks at Schlitterbahn Waterpark as a security guard but was fired.) Meanwhile, the various places Kelley went he invariably drew the impression that he was weird, creepy, or somehow not quite right. (Several people later made those observations.) Kelley reportedly had claimed to buy dogs and other animals in order to conduct “target practice” on them. (And nobody reported this to the police???) Kelley also discussed mass shootings and made the comment that he would like to commit such a crime himself. (And nobody called the police???)
Between 2014 and 2017 Kelley bought 4 firearms from normal sporting goods stores, never triggering the national data base (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) for people not allowed to purchase guns because of the oversight by Air Force authorities in never sending his court martial and discharge information to the FBI as required by law and Air Force orders. Apparently, his mental health issues were also not enough or at least not reported to prevent him from purchasing weapons. One of the weapons purchased by Kelley was a Ruger AR-556, a compact modern rifle similar to the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the other weapons apparently handguns. Kelley also applied for a license from the State of Texas to carry a handgun but was denied.
On the fateful day of November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley pulled up to the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs at 11:20 in the morning. Wearing black “tactical gear” and a bullet proof vest, Kelley began spraying the church building with bullets from the outside, killing 2 people outside before entering to continue his fusillade of lead against the unarmed parishioners. Kelley killed another 24 people inside the church, while wounding an additional 20 victims. As he exited the church, a local man, Stephen Willeford, had seen the crime taking place and retrieved his own AR-15 style rifle and took Kelley under fire, wounding the murderer. Kelley dropped his rifle and fired back at Willeford with his handgun, then fled in his Ford Explorer. Willeford jumped into the passenger seat of a passing pick up truck and gave chase! Of course, during this chase Willeford and the driver called 911 to report the incident. During the 5 to 7 minute car chase, Kelley managed to call his own father and told him that Kelley thought he would not survive his wounds (Willeford had shot him twice). Kelley, weakened by blood loss, crashed his Explorer and shot himself to death. Found in the Explorer with Kelley were 2 handguns, a 9mm and a .22 caliber pistol. His victims had ranged in age from 77 years old to an unborn baby.
Devin Kelley was blatantly mentally ill, and no, I am not a board certified medical doctor, but who has to be when the evidence is so overwhelming? Kelley probably committed his evil act because of some sort of grievance against his mother in law who attended the First Baptist Church. The combination of the failure of the US Air Force to properly forward information to the FBI and the failure of any sort of effective mental health reporting system that may have prevented Kelley from “legally” purchasing his firearms is definitely to blame for this deranged individual being allowed to purchase firearms like law abiding citizens. Obviously, the police could not protect the parishioners at the First Baptist Church, and all those gun control laws set in place failed to prevent Devin Kelley from committing his terrible acts. What did stop this crazed murderer was indeed, a “Good Guy with a gun.”
In many cases of mass shootings, an armed citizen in good standing on the scene may well have stopped the incident short of its deadly outcome, and perhaps saved at least some of the lives that were lost. Even if Devin Kelley had only been armed with a machete or some such weapon, the parishioners would have been hard pressed to stop him quickly without a firearm in the hands of a “good guy.” The recent (October 2018) massacre of 11 people at a Jewish Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania elicited heated debate over the subject of whether or not good citizens should go armed in order to prevent or at least lessen the damage from such incidents. We invite your comments on what you think the solutions are to prevent or at least lowering the damage caused by rampaging murderers.
Questions for Students (or others): How can mental health issues be addressed to lower the frequency of wanton shootings? Should good citizens be allowed to carry concealed firearms for self-defense? In the absence of firearms, would mass murderers still be able to kill people? Should normal people be provided some sort of reporting mechanism to advise authorities of persons they believe may be dangerous? (Remember, any of these things must be done while respecting the rights of the allegedly dangerous person!) Should places of worship have at least 1 armed person inside or outside the church?
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For more information, please see…
Burnett, David and Clayton Cramer. Tough Targets: When Criminals Face Armed Resistance from Citizens. Cato Institute, 2012.
Markel, Paul. Examining the Armed Citizen: the Historic Struggle Between Man and the State for the Control of Small Arms. Amazon Digital, 2018.
Williams, CR. Facing the Active Shooter: Guidelines for the Armed Citizen Defender. In Shadow In Light, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by TheAlphaWolf of an AR-15 rifle with a Stag lower receiver California legal (only with fixed 10-round magazine), has been released into the public domain by its author, TheAlphaWolf. This applies worldwide.