- Tony Plohetski, Austin American-Statesman
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.