AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday bestowed the state’s highest civilian award on a deacon who last month returned fire against an attacker who killed two parishioners during Sunday worship at a White Settlement church.
Jack Wilson of Granbury, who provided firearms training to members of the congregation and once operated On Target Firearms Training Academy in Fort Worth, is “a hero” for risking his life to gun down the shotgun-wielding assailant, Abbott said.
“So many lives were saved because of Jack Wilson’s quick action, his calmness under pressure and above all else his courage and his willingness to risk his own life to save the lives of others,” he said.
In a ceremony on the lawn at the Executive Mansion in Austin, the Republican governor awarded Wilson the Governor’s Medal of Courage. Abbott also gave him a framed gubernatorial commendation.
“Your courage will stand as an example for generations to come,” it read. “This deed of inspiring selflessness will not soon be forgotten.”
No mention of gun debate
At the ceremony, Abbott, Wilson and Wilson’s pastor at West Freeway Church of Christ, Britt Farmer, made no mention of the growing debate over gun violence in Texas.
However, a GOP state leader and four Republican lawmakers who strongly support gun rights stood behind the governor.
Through more than three decades in public office, Abbott has been a reliable Second Amendment supporter. In recent weeks, after multiple mass shootings in Texas, though, Democrats have criticized him for not proposing gun-ownership restrictions and background-check improvements — and especially for not calling a special legislative session to pass them.
Abbott has had two task forces working on responses to mass shootings. He and some gun rights advocates have called for better enforcement of existing laws, such as on domestic-violence protective orders and reporting of criminal convictions.
Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, was on hand. In last year’s session, she successfully authored a measure that clarified that unless a church provides oral or written notice to the contrary, Texans who are licensed to carry are allowed to carry handguns in houses of worship.
Other lawmakers at the ceremony included GOP Sens. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Brian Birdwell of Granbury, and Fort Worth Republican Rep. Charlie Geren, whose district includes the church.
Gun control advocate reacts
Ed Scruggs of the gun-control advocacy group Texas Gun Sense said he agrees Wilson “did a lot to protect the congregation that day.”
He noted that the assailant Wilson killed, Keith Thomas Kinnunen, had a lengthy criminal history and exhibited signs of mental instability. Kinnunen’s ex-wife filed for a protective order against him in 2012, calling him a “religious fanatic” who claimed to be “battling a demon,” The Dallas Morning News has reported.
Scruggs called Kinnunen “a walking poster for the need for a red-flag law,” under which judges could remove guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
While it’s not clear yet how Kinnunen obtained the shotgun, Scruggs said it’s possible he bought it under conditions in which no background check was required.
“He should never have had a firearm,” Scruggs said.
‘Do what’s right or walk away’
Police have said that Kinnunen entered the church Dec. 29 and shot and killed Anton “Tony” Wallace, 64, of Fort Worth and Richard White, 67, a member of the church’s security team. Wilson then intervened.
On Monday, the former firearms instructor said he had no choice, though he is uncomfortable being called a hero.
“When events arise, you’re going to do one of two things,” said Wilson, who is running as a Republican for Hood County commissioner in the March 3 primary. “You’re either going to step up and do what’s right or walk away. And I’m not one to walk away — not from this or anything else.”
He and Abbott stressed that they and church members continue to try to comfort the relatives of the two slain churchgoers, Wallace and White. Wallace was a nurse. Farmer, the church’s senior minister, has said White was his best friend.
Wilson said 16 of his family members were at the Dec. 29 worship service.
“I feel more as a protector than I do a hero because I did lose two real good friends,” he said.
Abbott said Texans “thank God for putting Jack Wilson in that church that day.” He continued, “Only God knows who is alive today because of Jack Wilson.”