Stephen Willeford, the hero who stopped a gunman that murdered 26 congregants of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, from committing further carnage, gave an emotional testimony Tuesday to the United States Senate speaking against proposed restrictions on gun owners.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing organized by Chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Ethan's Law, a bill that would create federal requirements for safe gun storage in homes where a minor is present and impose strict penalties, including possible jail time, on households that do not comply.
Ethan's Law is named for Ethan Song, a Connecticut teen who accidentally shot and killed himself with an unsecured firearm that had belonged to his friend's father in January 2018. Ethan's mother, Kristin Song, testified to the committee about her personal tragedy and her support for requiring gun owners to store their weapons in a biometric safe.
Willeford, a former NRA instructor and witness for the Republican minority, testified that federal restrictions like a requirement that firearms stored at the home be unloaded and locked up in safes could cost precious time in a life or death situation. He shared his story of the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, recounting how he could have saved more lives if his gun had not been locked away when he needed it.
"Today, I am here to tell you about what went wrong, and the consequences of those decisions. This is the hardest statement I will ever make in my life," Willeford told the committee in his opening statement.
"I have been a gun owner all my life. I own a safe, and because I thought it was the responsible thing to do, I kept my rifles and handguns locked away. Because nothing bad happens in my town. Until the day it did."
On Nov. 5, 2017, gunman Devin Kelley massacred 26 people and injured 20 more when he opened fire on the church attended by his wife Danielle's family. Kelley, who had been court-martialed and discharged from the Air Force in 2012 for assaulting his then-wife and stepchild, had a history of violence that should have prevented him from being able to purchase a firearm under existing federal law.
Willeford recounted how on that morning his daughter alerted him to gunfire at the nearby church, how he "flew into action," grabbing a rifle from his safe and rushed to confront the shooter.
"Imagine yourself running down the hallway to your house, and fumbling with the lock on your safe. Imagine hearing each shot ringing through the air, knowing that one of your community members is on the receiving end of each bullet. Knowing that you are not fast enough," he said. "I grabbed my AR-15, grabbed a handful of ammunition — eight rounds. I ran to my front door, loading the gun as I ran."
"How much time had I taken?" he continued. "I timed it now. It's about two minutes. I could have shaved 90 seconds off if my firearm had been loaded and not locked behind a giant steel door."
"90 seconds does not sound like a lot, but to me it will always be the longest 90 seconds of my lifetime and my greatest regret."
Willeford said he wonders how many lives he could have saved if he came to the rescue just minutes faster.
"I will always be haunted by those 90 seconds wasted getting my gun from the safe and loading it," he told Congress, on the verge of tears.
"I will never again keep my firearms unloaded in a safe. Whether or not this law passes, I will not comply. I won't make that mistake again. It came at too high a cost. The answer to our problem is not restrictions. It's an informed public. It's educating kids on gun safety from an early age.
"Government stepping into an individuals' homes and dictating how they can act in each circumstances, legislating how they are allowed to defend themselves and their families will not end well. We as individuals are responsible for the decisions we make in our own homes. We have that right — our government is there to protect and support that right, not legislate it."