Gun owner Stephen Willeford — the man responsible for taking down the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooter that killed 26 people — on Wednesday testified about the implications of making safe gun storage a federal firearm law.
The safe gun storage bill that is making its way through the Senate is dubbed Ethan’s Law, named after the same bill that was signed into Connecticut law in 2019. The federal version of the bill was introduced by the Democratic delegation from Connecticut, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. A companion bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Rosa DeLauro.
Under the federal bill, gun owners with children would be required to keep a firearm in a gun safe or use a “safety device” to prevent the gun from firing. Those that are caught in violation could face a $500 fine, five years in prison, or both.
Willeford, an NRA-certified instructor and member of the Texas Private Security Board, indicated some casualties and injuries could have been prevented during the Sutherland Springs shooting had he not kept his firearms unloaded and stored in a gun safe.
“I’m here to tell you about decisions made on November 5, 2017, and the consequences of those decisions. This is the hardest statement I will ever have to make in my life,” Willeford told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I have been a gun owner all of my life. I own a safe because I thought it was the responsible thing to do. I kept my rifles [and] my handguns locked away because nothing bad happens in my town. Until it did.”
“On November 5, 2017, an evil man opened fire into the First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs where 49 of my friends were gathered to worship. This man brought a vehicle full of firearms and ammunition he had obtained because the government failed to enforce its own pre-existing laws,” the hero recounted. “When I recognized what I was hearing, gun shots, I flew into action. Imagine yourself running down the hallway to your house and fumbling with a lock on your safe. Imagine hearing each shot ringing through the air, knowing that one of your community members is on the receiving end of each bullet, knowing that you’re not fast enough. I grabbed my AR-15, I grabbed a handful of ammunition – eight rounds. I ran to the door, loading my gun as I ran.”
“How much time had I taken? I timed it now. It’s about two minutes. I could have shaved 90 seconds off if my firearm had been loaded and not locked behind a giant steel door. I timed that too,” he explained. “Ninety seconds doesn’t sound like a lot but to me, it will always be the 90 seconds in my lifetime and my greatest regret.”
According to Willeford, it took Wilson County Sheriff’s deputies 19 minutes to respond to the scene, making his response even more signficant.
“The gunfire continued. I yelled out as I drew closer and the shooter heard me. My voice made him stop killing my neighbors and face me. Seconds before he had heard me, he shot Chris Workman in the spine, paralyzing him from the waist down,” Willeford said, trying to hold back tears. “If I had had my firearm ready, would this young husband and father still be able to walk today?”
The gun instructor made one point clear: it was the gunman’s fault – not the firearms – that the tragedy occurred.
“My firearms stopped it in its tracks but how much faster would I have been able to respond had I had my gun ready?” Willeford asked rhetorically.
“I will always be haunted by those 90 seconds wasted getting my gun from a safe and loading it,” he said, stifling tears. “I will never again keep my firearms unloaded in a safe. Whether or not this law passes, I will not comply, won’t make that mistake again. It came at too high a cost.”
Willeford indicated “restrictions” on the Second Amendment and gun owners wouldn’t solve the problem.
“It’s an informed public. It’s educating kids on gun safety from an early age,” he explained.
“Government stepping into an individuals’ homes and dictating how they can act in each circumstances, legislating how they are allowed to defend themselves and their families will not end well. We as individuals are responsible for the decisions we make in our own homes,” Willeford said. “We have that right — our government is there to protect and support that right, not legislate it.”
“When people ask me how many lives I think I saved that day, my answer is always the same: not nearly enough,” he concluded.
Stephen Willeford, the Sutherland Springs, Texas hero: “Firearms did not commit this atrocity. Don't get this story wrong. Evil did this. My firearm stopped it in its tracks. But how much faster would I have been able to respond if I had my gun ready?” pic.twitter.com/r3TGBoKy4l
— Steve Guest (@SteveGuest) May 25, 2021