In all the accounts of the Sutherland Springs church shooting a couple of weeks ago, one element stood out for me.
Stephen Willeford ... responded to the sound of gunfire by grabbing an AR-15 with an EOTech red dot sight out of his safe. But he didn’t have a magazine loaded. So he grabbed a handful of ammo and started loading a single magazine and headed for the crime scene.
God bless Mr. Willeford for being willing to put his own life on the line to protect the lives of others. I've no doubt those who survived the massacre did so in large part thanks to his intervention. However, his story highlights a conundrum that affects many gun owners.
We hear advice from many sources that one should never store a firearm in a loaded condition. Many owners manuals for firearms specifically state that. We hear advice that one should store ammunition separately from firearms. Some jurisdictions make that official. For example, here's the sixth rule of gun safety from the office of California's Attorney General.
Store your gun safely and securely to prevent unauthorized use. Guns and ammunition should be stored separately. When the gun is not in your hands, you must still think of safety. Use a California-approved firearms safety device on the gun, such as a trigger lock or cable lock, so it cannot be fired. Store it unloaded in a locked container, such as a California-approved lock box or a gun safe. Store your gun in a different location than the ammunition. For maximum safety you should use both a locking device and a storage container.
In other countries, for example Australia, it's actually illegal to store firearms and ammunition together. Police may make unannounced visits at "reasonable times", without a search warrant, to ensure that gun owners are in compliance with the law; if they're not, they face confiscation of their firearms on the spot, and the permanent loss of their gun license(s).
The trouble is, such policies prevent any reasonably quick armed response to a crime. Of course, that's the point in such jurisdictions: police don't want citizens stopping crimes using their firearms. That's a very important reason for avoiding such jurisdictions if you can! However, if he'd been living under such legal restrictions, Mr. Willeford would not have been able to stop the church massacre as he did.
Safety considerations are important, particularly if you have small children and/or untrained persons who might get their hands on your guns. (You should, of course, store them in such a way that they can't . . . but accidents happen.) Nevertheless, you also need to be able to respond to crime in order to defend yourself, your loved ones, and your property, where that's legally permitted. To do so, you'll need a loaded gun. Ideally, you should have it on your person, where it's always under your supervision and control. However, for many of us, that's not possible; which means storing at least one firearm in a loaded condition, and/or with a magazine or other ammunition supply near it and available for instant access.
If Mr. Willeford had had a loaded magazine already available, instead of having to load one, he might have been able to intervene more quickly, and save even more lives. That's a thought I'm sure he's had since the tragedy. It's one we need to think about, too. If you rely on a firearm for self-defense and the protection of your family, you need to have ammunition ready to go, accessible with the firearm.
The military refers to a soldier's ammo loadout as a "basic load". It's carried over and above his other necessities. Here's what that looked like for a Vietnam-era soldier; modern troops carry even more.
Police have a similar concept, although they don't necessarily call it the same thing. As civilians, we don't need anything like a full "basic load", and we almost certainly will never need that much ammunition. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend having available at least three loaded magazines per weapon, one in the gun, the other two as backups, carried on one's belt, in pockets, or in a so-called "tactical" vest. If carrying two guns (e.g. a rifle and a pistol), I'd recommend three magazines for each weapon.
It's all very well being safety conscious; but too much safety consciousness can get you killed, or prevent you from responding to an emergency as you'd otherwise do. I daresay Mr. Willeford regrets his lack of a loaded magazine. I hope and pray none of us ever have cause to do the same.