The gun-carrying man who police say helped detain an armed-robbery suspect at the Anchorage 5th Avenue Mall on Sunday says it was the first time he ever needed to draw his gun in public.
Matthew Willhite, 22, a chef at Pizza Athena in Palmer, said his involvement in 18-year-old Yan Bangout's arrest began as an ordinary shopping trip to the mall's Buckle clothing store.
"I was with my girlfriend and her family," Willhite said. "Her little brother wanted to get some new shirts at Buckle."
That's when Bangout got into a scuffle with security guards after trying to steal $1,200 in goods from the store. He then reached for a weapon hidden in his waistband, police said.
"As we walked up, I saw security wrestling with the suspect, and I went up to see if they needed any help," Willhite said. "One security officer is telling people to back away and suddenly he's yelling, 'Gun, gun, gun!'"
Willhite said he immediately drew his own handgun -- a Para-Ordnance 1911 .45-caliber ACP modeled on the popular M1911 military pistol -- and aimed it at Bangout, at "an angle where he could see me, but nobody else was going to get hurt."
"I yelled that I had a gun and he should drop it, and he eventually saw (the .45)," Willhite said. "Once he dropped the gun, the security officer handed me the gun, so I kicked it behind me and kept (my gun) on him until the security officers put handcuffs on him."
Willhite emphasized that his fields of fire were clear of unintended targets had he been forced to shoot, with the store's front gate already closed. Staff at the adjacent Apple Store were evacuating customers through the back of their store, and the nearby skybridge across Sixth Avenue to Nordstrom was empty.
"There was nobody there to the front or the back of me," Willhite said. "Even at Nordstrom I didn't see anyone coming or going."
Guns have been a fixture in Willhite's life since he began shooting at the age of 4 or 5.
"I've been carrying a sidearm since I was 18; I couldn't legally buy one until I was 21," Willhite said. "I'm from Nevada and in that state, if your parents give you a firearm you're allowed to open-carry one on your hip."
Willhite credited his father, a Navy veteran and former law enforcement officer, with preparing him for scenarios like Sunday's.
"You always think about how you would react in those situations," Willhite said. "You get in this mindset of, 'I'm carrying a gun, something happens at 7-Eleven; OK, what do I do?' 'Something happens at the 5th Avenue Mall; what do I do?' So when something does actually happen, your mind is just as strong as your firearm."
Readiness for an encounter like the one with Bangout, Willhite said, goes far beyond simply having a gun at hand.
"I don't carry because I'm going out to look for something -- I carry so I'm ready in case something happens," Willhite said. "Your gun is just a piece of steel -- it's what's in your mind, whether you're going to shoot, you're not going to shoot; whether you have to pull (the trigger), whether you don't need to pull."
State law doesn't require Alaskans to get permits to carry concealed weapons in most circumstances, but the state does issue permits that allow Alaskans to carry concealed weapons in some other states subject to their local laws. An overview of the laws, as well as the permit applications, has been posted online by the state Department of Public Safety.
Willhite said Tuesday he doesn't currently have an Alaska concealed-carry permit but is taking classes to get one later this year. He urged anyone contemplating carrying a concealed weapon to apply for a state permit and attend those associated classes.
While nobody was hurt at the mall on Sunday, Willhite pointed out that anyone who draws a gun in a similar incident may be detained by first responders, with the repercussions for opening fire ranging from criminal charges to civil lawsuits.
"I couldn't ask for a better outcome," Willhite said. "But if it did go south in a different way, you have to be ready to be thrown in cuffs and your gun to be taken away for two, three years -- it's something you have to be ready to risk, to keep you and your family safe."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing