Sadly Texas has recently been the scene of two church shootings. Twenty-six members of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas were murdered, and another twenty were wounded. Two years later a gunman opened fire in the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas killing two people before he was shot dead by a security guard. There were similarities and great differences between these two events that have lessons for us all.
In the Sutherland Springs shooting the gunman entered a church where none of the worshiper were armed. He was able to murder and injure dozens of worshipers before an armed response drove him away from the scene. Shortly after the gunman ended his killing spree Stephen Willeford, an NRA instructor, confronted the gunman, wounding him, and forcing him to flee. Willeford gave pursuit and was able to corner the shooter a few miles away. The shooter committed suicide before law enforcement arrived. That shooting resulted in a change to Texas law allowing the carry of firearms in churches.
The White Settlement shooting took a very different course. The gunman attended the services, which were being televised. The gunman stood up and produced a shotgun from under his coat. As he pointed it at one of the worshipers, the individual began to draw his own firearm. The gunman shot him and another worshiper before another armed church member, Jack Wilson, drew his pistol and shot the gunman in the head. In the seconds that followed several other worshipers drew their own weapons and encircled the dying gunman.
Beyond the obvious lesson “Never go out unarmed”, these two scenarios are instructive in several ways.
“Never draw against a drawn firearm.”
Shortly after video of the White Settlement church shooting was released, several keyboard warriors began criticizing the first shooting victim, Richard White, for attempting to draw his pistol with the shotgun aimed at him. While this criticism may be appropriate in a variety of situations, it is way off the mark in this instance in my opinion. Mr. White is a true hero in this case, and deserves our respect for the courage he demonstrated at that moment. How many of us are prepared to act as courageously in the face of similar danger?
Armed confrontations are not all the same, and while the “never draw against a drawn firearm” is sound advice in many situations, it does not apply here. Most gunmen you may encounter are generally interested in obtaining something — money, drugs, a vehicle, or other valuable items. It is the interest in obtaining those items that distracts the gunman from time to time providing an opportunity to draw your own firearm. Such was not the case in the church shooting. The gunman’s only objective was to murder or maim as many worshipers as possible, as quickly as possible. Mr. White accurately sensed this and knew he had no other choice. He did not hesitate to act. His quick actions saved many lives at the cost of his own.
The lesson for us is to incorporate in our practice as many different scenarios as we can imagine. While it is wise during a robbery to be cooperative until the gunman is distracted, and then draw our firearm, other situations may require us to respond instantly. Practicing those scenarios over, and over, and over will equip us with the confidence to respond appropriately should we find ourselves confronted by a gunman. We can build a repertoire of responses by reviewing as many real world scenarios as we can. There are numerous videos available on the internet which present actual events similar to something we might encounter ourselves.
Practicing The Right Things Builds Confidence
In both shootings trained individuals directed accurate fire upon the shooter as quickly as possible. Mr. Willeford reported grabbing his own rifle and running toward the church without even putting on his shoes. He instinctively fired at the gunman before he realized the danger he himself was then in. Mr. Wilson, upon realizing shots were being fired, quickly located the shooter, drew his pistol, took aim and fired one shot hitting the gunman in the head. Each of these men relied on years of practice to neutralize the threat as quickly as possible. These were ordinary men responding in extraordinary ways in the face of mortal danger.
The confidence necessary to respond appropriately comes from extensive practice of the fundamentals of shooting. Practicing the right things over and over builds the muscle memory required to perform under pressure. It also provides confidence in our ability to respond appropriately in a dangerous situation.
Practicing basic firearm manipulation is a critical part of training for your response. The simple act of drawing a firearm in a chaotic situation is fraught with danger to a person who has not practiced extensively. Failing to gain a firm grip on your firearm not only runs the risk of losing control of your pistol, but most likely will result in less accuracy when taking a shot. Not raising the firearm completely out of the holster can likewise risk losing control of your weapon. During the draw stroke it is critical you clear clothing away so as not to entangle it with our firearm. This is a skill that should be practiced with the wide array of clothes you wear for different seasons and occasions.
There are skills we can practice almost anywhere, provided we have made certain the weapon we are practicing with is unload and safe. Better yet, we can practice these skills with a dummy training pistol. We can practice skills such as grasping our firearm firmly, checking that we are raising it completely out of the holster, indexing until the muzzle is on target, and accurate target acquisition. We should also practice these skills with our off hand. We cannot always rely on being able to use our shooting hand in all instances. These skills can be practiced regularly without going to a range.
At the range we can practice shooting at a variety of distances. While most shooting occur within a few feet, as we saw in the White Settlement, Texas shooting, accuracy at distance may also be required. Equally important is shooting with our support hand. We should start by focusing on accuracy, but increasing our speed without sacrificing that accuracy.
Finally, I believe our every day carry firearm should be the same always. Rotating through different firearms runs the risk that during an emergent situation you may not be able to effectively defend yourself. Differences between striker fired weapons, those with external safeties, and variations in trigger pull may leave you fumbling to get a shot off. Under stress our attention becomes quickly focused on the threat, and our ability to think our way through the situation is significantly diminished. That is no time to have to remember to disengage a safety, or have to pull harder on a double action trigger.
Hopefully none of us will ever have to use our firearm to defend ourselves or others, but should that scenario present itself, through practice we cane ready to respond quickly and accurately.
Ronald Andring, Sr. is a veteran of a 30+ year career in law enforcement and corrections, serving with the Washington State Patrol, the Walla Walla Police Department, and the Washington Department of Corrections until his retirement in 2005.