Herman: Heroes and vigilantes and gun laws

For the NRA, ever on the prowl for proof that proliferation is better when it comes to guns, the horror in a small-town Texas church was a talking point come to life.

A good guy with a gun protected the townsfolk, albeit after the massacre, but, for all we know, just prior to another one down the road.

And because it turned out the murderer had weapons the law should have prevented him from having, the horrific incident also fed the mantra of some Americans who are overprotective of gun rights: You need to arm up and protect yourself because you can’t count on your inept government to do it.

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It’s a notion just short of the one that says you need to arm up to protect yourself against your government.

“Exclusive interview with Texas hero,” is how NRATV headlined its talk with Stephen Willeford, the NRA-trained Sutherland Springs resident who fired on the shooter who had killed 26 and wounded 20 in the little church.

“Training kicks in and a small-town hero becomes a comfort to those in mourning,” trumpeted NRATV host Grant Stinchfield. “We spent the evening with him. He told his story, the one the mainstream media doesn’t want you to hear. A good guy with a gun stopped a bad one.”

(FYI, I think you’ve heard his story from the mainstream media.)

In my view, Willeford unquestionably is a hero. But his actions raise questions about the “good guy with a gun” notion to which I generally subscribe.

From what we know, Willeford correctly assessed the situation, took his legally owned AR-15 out of a gun safe in his home and fired at the murderer, hitting him twice and most probably contributing to, if not single-handedly causing, the end of the maniacal mayhem.

“An AR-15 is much easier to handle and much easier to aim,” Willeford said of his weapon of choice on Sunday.

I’ll take his word on that, and I’m glad that gun was in the hands of that man at that moment. So is gun owner and Second Amendment advocate Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, who was among lawmakers and others at a Wednesday Capitol news conference in favor of laws they believe can curtail mass shootings.

“That’s part of the story,” Nevárez said when I asked about the “good guy with a gun” portion of this mass shooting. “A gentleman came out and once the (murderer) drew fire he ran because he wasn’t expecting any resistance. Of course that’s part of the story. But let’s talk about that good gentleman. … Where did he get his gun from? He had to get it out of a safe, put the clip in and run across the street. He wasn’t wandering around his neighborhood with an AR-15.

“I agree with the NRA,” he said. “That is a good gun owner. That gun was where it was supposed to be, in the safe.”

Good, indeed. But can the case be made that it would have been even better if this good gentleman had been wandering around his neighborhood with an AR-15? If he had been, could he have intervened sooner and saved more lives?

Also Wednesday, Nevárez offered the unassailable belief there’s no reason anybody needs to be walking around with a rifle. Many Texans, especially urban ones, are surprised no license is needed to walk around with a loaded rifle.

“You don’t need your gun other than when you buy it and take it out of the store, take it to the shooting range or take it to hunt,” Nevárez said. “There’s no reason to be parading around with it.”

Nicole Golden of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America echoed that, saying, “The open carry of rifles has never been addressed in Texas and it’s high time we walked back that outdated practice.”

As I’ve espoused before, guns are a societal Rorschach test, perceived differently by different people in different parts of the state. What’s jarring, gun-wise, on Congress Avenue in downtown Austin probably is less so in downtown Muleshoe. State law should acknowledge this by allowing local control of some gun laws.

RELATED: Austin not backing down on gun ban at City Hall

Willeford’s heroic actions also force us to confront the fine line between hero and vigilante. In many cases, the former is the latter who’s proven to have acted within the law, including split-second deciding when lethal force is proper.

Try this scenario: What if a third shooter, who saw nothing other than Willeford firing on a fleeing man, perceived in the heat of the moment that Willeford was the criminal and the fleeing man was the victim? What if, for the fleeting moment, the good guy with a gun looked like a bad guy with a gun?

I think back to a 2015 Texas Senate committee meeting at which McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara, testifying in favor of the campus carry provision, said cops often are not first responders.

“The police can’t be everywhere at once,” he told senators. “The victims are the first responders, not the police. … We come in at the tail end of it and try to figure out who did it and bring them to justice.”

So what’s an armed citizen to do?

Austin’s interim police Chief Brian Manley, quoted by my colleague Tony Plohetski, says such people “have proven themselves to be very helpful.” But in intervening, he cautions, they must realize their actions will be subject to civil and criminal law review. You better be sure you’re shooting somebody who needs shooting. Even cops sometimes get that wrong.

We all know there’s no, pardon the expression, single magic bullet that’s going to end mass murders (or individual ones). There’s a gun law component. There’s a mental health component. There’s a domestic violence component. And we could use some help from Hollywood liberals who bemoan gun violence but seem OK with profiting from movies that portray such violence in ways that can’t help.

Let’s talk.

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