“The tiny town of Sutherland Springs needed a brave, calm-headed gun owner, an NRA instructor to stop the rampage of a deranged monster,” Stinchfield said, referring to Willeford.
The massacre in Texas has ignited both sides of the gun debate, with gun-rights supporters trumpeting Willeford as an example of the need for access to firearms and gun-control advocates saying the tragedy proves again it is too easy for people to get a gun.
But in Willeford, the NRA has found a man who represents the value of firearm training. Willeford said in the interview with the NRA that he used to shoot at a local, weekly league and the group became NRA instructors. Then they started teaching their kids how to shoot. His three kids became NRA distinguished experts with a pistol, through the organization’s plan, by the time they were 8 years old, he said.
“The kids enjoyed it. It was the whole family,” he said. “The range started sending people we didn’t know, said ‘Take your kids down there and shoot with them, they’ll train them.’ ”
The NRA offers training for home firearm safety, personal protection and courses on pistol, rifle and shotgun use, according to its website. Dana Loesch, an NRA spokeswoman, appeared on Stinchfield’s show and said Willeford’s actions “kind of goes against the narrative of those with license to carry, doesn’t it.”
Willeford told correspondent Denise Sinisi, who interviewed him, that he felt more comfortable talking to the NRA than other media outlets because he didn’t think they would “get it wrong,” Stinchfield said.
Willeford’s use of his firearm and his training has made him an “NRA hero,” he said.
Kelley was shot twice — in the leg and torso — before shooting himself in the head, officials said autopsy results showed.
Although the NRA has embraced Willeford, it has not always done so with other gun owners in the aftermath of fatal shootings.
In the NRA interview with Sinisi, Willeford said he believed that law enforcement officials aren’t afraid of guns owned by NRA members.
“They’re not afraid of our guns, and that became evident when I put that rifle on the hood of the truck and started walking back,” he said, motioning his hands up. “He said, ‘Not you,’ ” referring to what officers told him as he approached them.
When a Minnesota police officer fatally shot Philando Castile in July 2016, a black man who had a valid permit to carry a gun, the NRA was nearly silent. Castile reportedly notified the officer about the firearm as a precaution and was shot anyway. More than a day after that shooting, the organization released a statement that did not mention Castile by name and called the incident “troubling.”
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After the Las Vegas attack, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, the NRA endorsed restricting “bump stocks,” the device used by gunman Stephen Paddock to accelerate his gunfire as he indiscriminately shot at concertgoers from a hotel room.
As the NRA has shown an affinity for Willeford, he has reciprocated its affection.
A chair on his porch had a piece of paper with a handwritten warning: “Not Talking to Media! My time is not Free!” Yet Sinisi said that once the family realized who she was, they welcomed her.
Sinisi said Willeford told her: “You know, we’re just concerned that our message is going to change when we do an interview, that it’s not going to be exactly what we say or how we feel. It’s going to turn into something that it’s not.”
Willeford declined multiple requests by The Washington Post for an interview.
Firearms are an “important part” of that community, Sinisi said, adding that families spend time together at the shooting range. The small Texas town of Sutherland Springs is “NRA country,” Stinchfield said.
While the majority of Sutherland Springs residents don’t take advantage of the state’s liberal open-carry law, residents said, most people do carry concealed weapons, and most households own at least one weapon and usually several more.
“There are lots of guns in the community. Most people own guns in Texas,” Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said Monday. “But guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”