On Sunday morning, as America reeled from another horrific shooting—this one in a rural Texas church, at the hands of a 26-year-old man with a Ruger AR-556 rifle, resulting in 26 deaths—pro-gun activists focused on how the shooting ended. The gunman had been shot at by a local firearm owner named Stephen Willeford, and then fled before killing himself.
Within minutes, this story of heroism in the face of danger had spread far and wide, especially on the right. The outspokenly pro-Trump actor James Woods scooped 28,000 retweets by using the law-abiding gun-owner to slap down an anti-gun activist. Pundits took to FOX News to label Willeford a hero.
Willeford is just the latest and most prominent example of a "good guy with a gun," a concept promoted by the gun lobby and mocked by its detractors. (In the wake of October's Las Vegas killings, a British satirical website offered a brutal take: "Good guy with a gun fails to prevent 2,916th successive mass shooting.") But though gun control advocates dismiss the idea that the answer to gun violence is more guns, and have data to back that up, many Americans are embracing the narrative of the virtuous responder.
Just ask Jimmy Graham, a 15-year Navy SEAL veteran who runs one of America's most popular courses in how to respond to an incident involving an armed shooter.
Five years ago, Graham got a call from a gun club–owning friend who told him there had been a dramatic rise in everyday civilians looking for training on what to do in the event of a mass shooting attack. Working together, they put together a new course designed to focus on the "tactical application" of firearms.
"The problem was that conventional firearms training had become very dated," said Graham from his office in Centennial, Colorado. "We wanted to do something more reality-based—to show people how these skills actually applied to their life."
Studies have found that statistically, states with permissive concealed-carry laws have more violent crime—in other words, having more guns in public spaces does not make life safer. But those statistics aren't likely to convince gun owners who fantasize about stopping a tragedy with a bullet.
Each year around 150 Americans undertake Graham's intense seven-month evening course to achieve the rank of Able Shepherd. (The name is self-consciously religious—"Shepherds are guided by biblical principles and hold themselves to a higher standard," explains a marketing blurb.) The training incorporates live scenarios, enabled by a new technology that allows real-life guns to be converted to fire non-lethal rounds comprised of colored soap at a velocity of 400 feet per second—a kind of extreme paintball. Budding Shepherds are thrown into a high-octane scenario where they're tasked with neutralizing the terrorists without harming bystanders.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than 90 percent of applicants are men, largely civilians with no professional firearms experience. Graham insists, though, they're not just Dwight Shrutes. "A lot are dads who just want to be sure they can defend their family if a horrible situation arises," he explained. "We tend to be fortunate in that most of them aren't overly gung-ho, but every now and then you'll get someone with this notion that they're going to come in and save the day.
"What tends to focus their mind is when they go into the training and accidentally shoot one of the innocents—that's when they say, Maybe I'm not ready for this just yet, and maybe I need a bit more training."
"If somebody is going to play an active role, they need to make sure they have both the right skillset and mindset," Sergeant Vincent Lewis of the Phoenix Police Department told me. He approved of more vigilant civilians, but didn't want anyone to underestimate the training necessary to confront a shooter. For police officers, he said, that typically takes over 700 hours of full-time training and a year on probation. "You have to know what's expected of you in that kind of situation—the sacrifices you might have to make in order to protect the lives of people around you," he said.
Gun ownership has always gone hand-in-hand with a focus on personal protection, though in past generations it was more wrapped up in the idea that a gun could shield your family and home from harm. When I first started spending time with Second Amendment enthusiasts in 2016—as part of an impromptu study into the modern psychology of gun ownership—I met folks who still matched the old stereotype: God-fearing family types who said grace before meals, refrained from cussing on Sundays, and kept firearms largely to protect their property against potential intruders.
But as the fears within American society have grown, reasons for firearm ownership have shifted. Speak to buyers at a small-town gun show and you're just as likely to hear about rampant jihadis or unhinged wife-beaters who shoot up churches as you are about home invasions. On the fringes of the Three Percenter militia movement, adherents amass guns to ward off the rise of Illuminati-style world government.
Perhaps linked to this is a 2016 study by Harvard and Northeastern universities that charted the rise of "super-owners," who typically own more than eight guns and favor heavier-duty weapons such as the AR-15. Polls have shown a rise in the number of Americans who fear terrorist incidents, with four in ten Americans saying that they fear being caught up in a mass shooting.
So it's not surprising that whenever attacks like Sutherland Springs hit the news, Graham's phone starts ringing.
"We get accused of trying to exploit tragedy, but it's like I always say—we don't stop talking about what we do; it's just that everyone else stops listening," he told me. "Two weeks after a shooting like Vegas and the attention fades away."
Graham's company website makes comprehensive use of a 2013 FBI publication highlighting a rise in mass shooting attacks, showing a breakdown of the most common targets (46 percent of mass shootings between 2000 and 2013 were on places relate to commerce). A promo video shows a black-and-white dramatization of an attack on a nondescript office, explaining how 60 percent of attacks are over before law enforcement arrives.
The fear of these attacks has become so widespread that the Department of Homeland Security has published its own guidance on what it calls "active shooter preparedness," which is in turn distributed to thousands of federal premises and private employers across the US. That guidance confirms Graham's assessment that most incidents end before law enforcement arrive, and calls on citizens to be "mentally and physically" prepared for a potential incident. It also stresses that citizens should only attempt to take down the shooter as a very last resort.
"The government has been clear what citizens should do if they are caught in an attack," Sergeant Lewis told me. "Run if you can, hide if you're stuck, and fight back if the shooter finds you." (The federal guidance omits any suggestion of firearms and instead mentions everything from hot coffee to office chairs as potential weapons).
Fighting back can come at enormous emotional cost. "These situations can be psychologically devastating to the individuals involved; both to the innocents nearby, and anyone attempting to stop them," said Brian Coss, deputy director of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, a body that trains police officers.
"Having said that, when it comes to the worst case scenario like in Vegas or Texas—and if we are going to see more of those kinds of incidents—then there is a case to be made that doing something is better than nothing," he told me. "And in that case, a program which gives a better level of awareness, and some level of empowerment, to those who choose to do something could be a positive thing."
Robert Jackman is a writer interested in personal freedoms—however strange or provocative—in today's America.