Sutherland Springs ‘hero’ honored as first post-shooting session begins

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Stephen Willeford does not call himself a hero, though his actions November 5, 2017 — dubbed “heroic” by state lawmakers — earned him recognition in the Texas Senate on Tuesday.

Willeford lives across the street from First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. When he heard gunfire during services, he grabbed his rifle and headed for the church. He spotted the gunman and with help from a neighbor and that neighbor’s truck, chased the gunman away from the church. Twenty-six people died and 20 others were hurt.

“Stephen Willeford ’s quick thinking and decisive actions likely saved the lives of others the gunman might have targeted; his courage under extreme pressure has served as an inspiration to his fellow Texans and to citizens across the country, and it is truly fitting that he receive special recognition for his brave conduct,” a special resolution in Willeford’s honor reads in part.

“This is a real hero who didn’t want to be a hero,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in the Senate Chamber on Tuesday.

Willeford said he believes other people would have done the same thing he did.

“I was absolutely honored,” he said after the recognition. Since the shooting, Willeford, a plumber at University Hospital with more than 30 years of experience, participated in a May 2018 roundtable discussion hosted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott addressing safety and security at Texas schools. He was appointed by Abbott to the Texas Private Security Board in June 2018.

The shooting in Sutherland Springs, a small town east of San Antonio, has fueled the state and national gun debate. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., passed legislation authored by Texas Republican John Cornyn focusing on changes to the federal background check system, but this session is the first chance to pass any laws since the shooting in Sutherland Springs and the deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School.

“I think we have more than enough gun laws,” Willeford said. “Someone that is going to do something like this, they have already broken so many laws, it’s ridiculous.”

“If you want to enforce the ones that we have, that’s one thing, but we don’t need more gun laws,” he added.

The head of Texas Gun Sense, a gun safety advocacy group, said she was encouraged by the tone of Abbott’s roundtable meetings last year, but encouraged lawmakers to do more to prevent firearms from getting into the hands of people who could inflict harm on others.

“Too many people are dying and it’s completely preventable,” Gyl Switzer, Texas Gun Sense executive director said. “There have been recent incidents of children getting a hold of guns and hurting themselves, killing their friends, there is no excuse for that.”

“We do not believe that more guns in schools make us any safer,” Switzer said. “The data show that, we’re concerned about teachers and staff being armed without appropriate training, concerned about connections between community law-enforcement and armed people in the schools, so we are trusting that the legislature will realize that problem.”

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have already filed legislation addressing gun regulations.

Bedford Republican Rep. Jonathan Stickland filed House Bill 357, which would end concealed carry licensing requirements in Texas. Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mt. Pleasant, filed HB 1143 to prevent school districts from regulating handgun, firearm, or ammunition storage in vehicles that are parked in school parking lots. Dallas Democrat Rep. Rafael Anchia filed bills relating to firearm sales at gun shows and prohibition of investment of certain state retirement system funds in companies that manufacture firearms or ammunition. State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, put forward legislation (HB316) that would create a public awareness campaign on firearm safety and suicide prevention.

Lawmakers have until March 8 to file bills to be considered this session.

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