Amid a Plague of Shootings, Bystanders Become Heroes

Gun massacres at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, are all examples of shootings where police officers or school security personnel were criticized as being slow to help civilians once a shooting was underway. Some Americans confronted by an armed assailant in more recent incidents have understood instantly: They are on their own.

“I feel like people are starting to come to the realization that the only one who’s going to protect you is you,” said Jack Wilson, a county commissioner in Hood County, Texas, who teaches concealed-carry classes. “People have to be willing to intervene to stop these kinds of issues.”

He was one of those bystanders: In 2019, Mr. Wilson was attending Sunday services at his church in White Settlement, Texas, when a gunman opened fire, killing two people. Mr. Wilson pulled out his own gun and fired, killing the assailant with a single shot.

“The only way law enforcement is going assist you is if they’re in your driveway,” he said. “That’s not a slam against law enforcement. They can’t be everywhere.”

Deputizing the public as a tool of last resort has not caused the pace of mass shootings to slow down. Already this year, at least 69 people have died in at least 39 separate shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

“If anyone’s saying, ‘I’m hearing more about active shooters being tackled or stopped by civilians,’ it may be true that is occurring more often,” said Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology at the University of Alabama. “But it could be a function of there being more total attacks.”

Sometimes, bystander interventions have been met with tragic consequences. In 2019, Riley Howell, a student at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was shot while trying to stop a gunman, though he managed to charge the assailant and pin him down. Mr. Howell, a 21-year-old former high school soccer goalie, died in the attack.