Josh Williams was halfway through his three-mile run along an Austin hike-and-bike trail on the morning of Sept. 15 when a woman’s screams overpowered the music in his earbuds.
In the predawn darkness, he ran closer to try to find her. He pointed his flashlight in her direction, then realized she was being attacked.
Williams slipped a Glock 43 pistol from a holster he had strapped to his waist. In his first time to ever point the gun at another person, he said he took aim at the man and “I told him to get off her.”
“I told him to get down on his knees, show me his hands, so that I knew he didn’t have a weapon,” Williams told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV in a recent interview. “And at that point, he was no threat, and so I didn’t feel the need to shoot him.”
The shooting this week of a gunman in Sutherland Springs by a bystander, which authorities say might have saved lives after an attack on a church, has again drawn national attention to how an armed resident can step in before police arrive and stop crime in progress.
Stephen Willeford, a former instructor for the National Rifle Association, has been heralded nationally after taking cover behind a pickup and firing multiple shots at Devin Kelley, the 26-year-old New Braunfels man who police said carried out Sunday’s massacre at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.
No one keeps track on how often an armed citizen prevents or stops a crime, but such instances are often a central feature in the nation’s gun control debate, especially in conservative Texas.
Soon after Willeford intervened in Sutherland Springs, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said similar shootings could be prevented by citizens licensed to carry guns at churches or other settings with large groups of people — a suggestion that Democrats said was an inappropriate response to the massacre.
“All I can say is in Texas at least we have the opportunity to have conceal carry,” Paxton told Fox News. “And so … there’s always the opportunity that gunman will be taken out before he has the opportunity to kill very many people.”
Williams’ actions highlight a case closer to home in which an armed citizen took action that many, including police, deem heroic.
Unforgettable events, but conflicting data
Austin police say they do not attempt to track how often an armed victim or witness prevents or stops a crime, but they immediately cite what Williams did during a series of attacks on women along the trail as a recent example.
Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said people such as Williams “have proven themselves to be very helpful,” but he added that they are assuming the responsibility of having their actions scrutinized in both civil and criminal cases and could face charges if it is later found that they broke the law.
“I don’t want to downplay the heroic actions he took, but you have to measure the need for an immediate response against the risk you are taking or actions you may take once you engage,” he said.
Manley said people who decide to participate in such situations “rather than secure the scene and be a good witness while awaiting law enforcement’s arrival” should make sure they promptly identify themselves to officers and follow their orders once they arrive.
The issue of whether private citizens with guns help prevent or stop crime has been widely debated and researched for years.
Daniel Webster, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Policy and Research, said that, based on his evaluation of such data, no evidence conclusively shows that armed citizens increase safety.
“Measuring defensive gun use is incredibly challenging,” he said. “There are no systematized processes in law enforcement agencies to report that kind of information. It’s a phenomenon that is particularly difficult to measure in a direct way.”
Some studies have suggested, for instance, that brandishing a gun was no safer than running away from an assailant, or that calling for help as a bystander instead of using a weapon caused a situation to be more quickly or more safely resolved, he said. Other studies have suggested that people with guns also risk having them stolen from cars or homes, potentially putting more weapons in the hands of criminals.
Yet gun rights advocates point to an array of data in their arguments in support of allowing citizens to own and carry guns for personal protection.
The website for Gun Owners of America said armed citizens “kill more crooks than police do” based on their research. It added that as many as 200,000 women use guns a year to defend themselves against sexual assault.
Advocates also cite multiple incidents nationally in which armed citizens stepped in and potentially saved lives. They include a 2015 case in which an armed Uber driver in Chicago shot and wounded a man who opened fire on a crowd; a 2012 case in Plymouth, Pa., in which a bar patron shot and killed a gunman after that shooter killed one man and injured another after an argument; and a 2007 case in Colorado Springs, Colo., in which a member of a church shot a man who had killed four members of the congregation.
But there are also instances in which police said armed citizens got in the way.
After a recent shooting at a Walmart in suburban Denver that killed three people, police said they were forced to spend valuable time tracking down armed shoppers in surveillance videos to rule them out as suspects, according to the Denver Post. It took them more than five hours to identify the person they say was the gunman.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which tracks the number of gun permits, did not immediately know how many Texans are licensed to carry a weapon. Last year, about 9,000 people in Travis County were granted a license. The statewide number was 825,000 in December 2014.
Opinions also range among law enforcement about whether citizens carrying guns is an advantage in their efforts to combat crime and increase public safety.
Richard Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said the organization has no position on citizens arming themselves.
“But as a longtime police chief and 40-year veteran of policing, it has been my experience that introducing more guns into a dangerous scenario rarely turns out well,” he said.
Three years ago, Detroit Police Chief James Craig made headlines when he urged citizens to arm themselves in self-defense during a surge of violent crime.
“We’re not advocating violence,” he was quoted as saying in a 2014 magazine published by the National Rifle Association. “We’re advocating not being victims.”
He said he did not think his advice directly resulted in a spate of self-defense shootings, during which six home intruders were shot and killed.
‘Right place, right time’
For his part, Williams, 39, said he had no intention of stepping into a national gun control debate the morning he helped the woman.
Williams, the father of a 9-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son, said he only wanted to help someone in need — that’s why he carries his gun in the first place, he said. He said he has been licensed to carry a gun for a decade and runs with a Velcro belt that snaps around his waist should he need it.
“Protection for myself, No. 1; No. 2 is protection of other people,” he said. “I need to help myself or help someone else, I’m able to.”
The attack in which Williams intervened was the second of three on female runners during a short span in September. Police are still investigating the other two.
Williams said he has had contact with the woman since the incident and that she has repeatedly thanked him for what he did that day.
“I didn’t think I’d ever have to pull it,” he said. “Did I want to? No, but just right place, right time. I don’t see myself as being a hero. But I guess I am.”