Peacemaker Friday: What We Can All Learn From the Waffle House Hero

Wrestling an assault-style rifle out of an active shooter’s hands in a Nashville Waffle House last Sunday is what makes James Shaw Jr. a hero. But it’s what he did next—tossing the rifle out of reach instead of turning it around and using it on the shooter—that makes him a perfect example of how to peacefully handle a violent situation.

Image Credit: by Magda Stremeski / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sometimes it feels like our only two options are to respond with violence or “do nothing.” Sometimes, there are no “good” options.

We don’t have to do “nothing” in the face of violence. We don’t have to meet violence with violence. Sometimes, we can wrestle someone else’s gun away from them without using one ourselves.

On Sunday, April 22, James Shaw Jr. was having a breakfast with a friend when the gunman opened fire. Shaw immediately hit the floor and slid across the ground toward the restrooms, taking cover behind a swinging door. The shooter saw him and fired several rounds in his direction. One of his bullets grazed Shaw’s elbow.

Then there was a pause. Either the gun jammed or needed to be reloaded. Shaw saw an opportunity and decided to go for it.

“If I was going to die, he was going to have to work for it,” he told reporters.

Shaw ran through the swinging door and charged the man, who was naked except for a jacket. He grabbed the barrel of the gun—still burning hot from firing several rounds—and the two men scuffled over the gun for what probably felt like forever. In reality, it was only a few seconds.

Finally, Shaw wrenched the rifle free and threw it away from them, over the restaurant counter. He then pushed the gunman through the door and outside, away from the gun and away from his victims. The two men ran away in opposite directions.

Image Credit: by Zemistor / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Shaw escaped with a badly burned hand from the hot barrel of the gun, a bullet wound on his elbow, and other injuries from his face-to-face brawl with the shooter. Four others lost their lives that day, though that count would have undoubtedly been higher without Shaw’s bravery and heroism.

During a press conference, Shaw told reporters that he decided to rush the gunman because he felt like it was “either gonna be him or me.”

But that wasn’t how it turned out. By taking the particular action that he did—by seizing the gun, throwing it away, and removing the gunman from the situation to prevent further harm—James Shaw Jr. proved that he didn’t have to choose between himself and the gunman.

One did not have to die for the other to survive. Because life is not a zero-sum game and we do not necessarily have to take lives in order to save lives.

Make no mistake, there is a risk to taking this approach to violence. When James Shaw Jr. decided to forcefully resist the violence that was taking place by wrestling a gun from an active shooter, he knew it could cost him his life.

In the same way, if we decide—before we find ourselves in a violent situation—that we will also forcibly resist violence but that we will not take another life, we must also be willing to lay down our own lives.

We have to believe there is something more valuable than protecting our own lives at all costs, that there are some things worth sacrificing ourselves for.

Nothing about this is easy…or safe. But it’s the only way to unmake violence, without doing “nothing” or meeting violence with yet more violence in what becomes a never-ending cycle.

Shaw’s response to active violence was not “nothing” and it was anything but passive. He confronted the violence and made is stop. But he did it without using the same level of violence he was trying to end. And that is what we should all be doing in every violent situation in which we find ourselves.

Let’s all be more like James Shaw Jr., the Waffle House Hero.

Let’s confront and resist violence with a determination to end the bloodshed that is matched by a conviction that we do not always have to take lives to save lives. Even in the midst of a volatile and violent situation.