When Donald Trump was asked about gun control in the aftermath of a church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that killed at least 26 people, Trump was ready with a standard “good guy with a gun response” talking point to deflect gun control arguments. “This isn’t a guns situation,” he said. “Fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise it wouldn’t have been as bad as it was, it would have been much worse.”
Trump and many conservatives pointed to the actions of the man the Dallas Morning News identified as 55-year-old Stephen Willeford. According to CNN, Willeford “exchanged gunfire with the shooter before the gunman sped away in a pearl-colored Ford Explorer. [Willeford] then hailed a man across the street and got in his truck, telling him to chase down the gunman.”
After a 10- to 12-minute car chase, the gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, “lost control on his own and went off into the ditch,” according to the man driving the truck in the chase after the gunman. Around five minutes later, police found Kelley in his car, dead from what is believed to be a self-inflicted bullet wound.
Willeford was undoubtedly heroic, but as an argument for wider gun rights, this example is not as straightforward as conservatives make it seem.
First, the “good guy with a gun” argument usually posits that more guns means these good guys can stop the violence before it leads to mass casualty. But, as heroic as Willeford was, he didn’t stop the shooting at First Baptist Church—it was already over. Authorities have said Kelley essentially shot everyone in sight, killing at least 26, and encountered Willeford only once he left. Officials also said there was “some length of time that the subject spent inside that church in the shooting event” and that “he moved around freely inside the church.” This is not to diminish Willeford’s heroism—he got there as soon as he could and confronted Kelley. But shootings unfold quickly, in places where people often don’t carry weapons. It’s unrealistic to expect that a good guy with a gun can be everywhere a bad guy with a gun goes.
But did Willeford prevent Kelley from resuming his rampage at a second location? It’s possible. After all, Kelley was shot in the firefight and dropped his gun before he jumped into his vehicle, and the ensuing chase by Willeford and the other man may have led to Kelley’s car crash and/or apparent suicide. But we don’t know—no evidence suggests that Kelley planned to shoot more people elsewhere.
Second, the “good guy with a gun” argument doesn’t allow for nuance in the gun law debates. If we were to assume Willeford did prevent more deaths, we should also look at what gun he used to confront Kelley. Kelley used an assault rifle in his church massacre. The weapon used by Willeford has been described merely as a “rifle,” which suggests a hunting or sport rifle rather than an assault weapon. [Update, Nov. 7, 9:55 a.m.: New reporting has clarified that Willeford, a former NRA instructor, was armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle.]
Assault rifles in particular have been a focus of the gun debate as there is much stronger support for their regulation. Assault rifles have come to be seen as the weapon of choice in the most dramatic mass shootings in recent history. And handguns, less dramatic but more important statistically, are responsible for the majority of gun violence, which includes homicide, suicide, and accidents in the U.S. Handguns, which some argue should be the real focus of the gun debate, are more commonly excluded from the regulation conversation, though they do factor in when it comes to open- and concealed-carry laws. But even the most vocal gun control activists tend to support the right to own sport and hunting rifles. If Willeford used a hunting rifle to fight off Kelley, he was using a firearm few would have argued against his having.
But putting these two points aside, the fact remains that the “good guy with a gun” narrative does not statistically hold up when it comes to mass shootings. As Slate’s Forrest Wickman pointed out after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre, there have been instances in which bystanders have actually been credited for stopping mass shootings, but they’re rare, and even then, it’s often unclear if they did actually stop more deaths. More commonly, he wrote, successful armed interventions come from off-duty police officers.
Gun advocates argue it’s hard to know how many shootings were nipped in the bud by armed civilians before those incidents became mass shootings, and some say the reason more armed bystanders don’t stop mass shootings is because the killers target gun-free zones such as schools. The statistics cited in gun debates can vary and are often interpreted differently. What’s clear, however, is the strong relationship shown in several studies between the number of guns and the number of gun-related deaths, even when controlling for factors such as poverty and crime. The armed bystander in the Sutherland Springs shooting might have saved lives. But his actions do not necessarily mean that this mass shooting was not, as Trump put it, a “guns situation.”