“It’s something we all say does not happen in small communities, although we found out today it does.”
Joe Tackitt, Wilson County Sheriff, Sutherland Springs, Texas, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2017
What happened in Sutherland Springs, Texas—population 600—on that terrible Sunday dominated the news cycle for the next 24 hours. It’s a safe bet it will soon be forgotten—everywhere except in the place where it happened, the place where the parents, children, friends and neighbors of the victims live, where what happened leaves a scar so ugly that it can and will never be forgotten.
The killer was “clad in all black, with a ballistic vest strapped to his chest and a military-style rifle in his hands.” The gunman—Devin P. Kelley—was a former Air Force member armed with a Ruger assault-style rifle. According to the press accounts, he was shot and wounded by a local man, a neighbor, who heard the sound of gunfire at the church. The shooter dropped his rifle and fled. He was pursued and found dead in his crashed Ford Expedition.
For the record, 26 people were killed in a Baptist church less than an hour’s drive from San Antonio that morning, including at least 12 children and a 77-year-old. Many others were wounded. An 18-month-old girl named Noah died in the massacre along with most of the rest of her family—both parents and her three siblings. The dead included “a pregnant woman and the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter,” according the New York Times, which called it “the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history.”
That’s saying something. Remember the “Texas Tower Sniper?” A close personal friend of mine does. He was walking across the campus at the University of Texas in Austin on Aug. 1,1966, when Charles Whitman opened fire from the observation deck on the 28th floor of the UT tower. The killing spree went on for over an hour before police officers shot and killed the “sniper” but by that time 17 people, mostly college students, lay dead on the ground and another 31 were wounded.
Whitman was highly intelligent but he had a serious problem with anger management. In his notes following a visit, one of his UT doctors, a psychiatrist, wrote, “This massive, muscular youth seems to be oozing with hostility…”.
Charles Whitman’s childhood had been less than ideal—he’d had an abusive father, a gun collector. Whitman, Sr. made certain that each of his boys grew up knowing how to shoot, clean and maintain weapons. "Charlie could plug the eye out of a squirrel by the time he was sixteen,” his dad boasted.
Judging from what has been written about the personalities and life trajectories of Whitman and Kelley, the similarities between these two mass murderers are striking. Like Whitman, Kelley was a veteran of the armed services, Whitman in the Marine Corps, Kelly in the Air Force. Both had violent tempers. Both were sharpshooters. Both were court-martialed. Both had had troubled marriages involving spousal abuse. Kelley’s wife had divorced him. Whitman’s wife, Kathy, had announced her decision to file for divorce.
Whitman first attended the University of Texas through a special military program but flunked out and had to return to regular active duty. In his diary, Whitman wrote bitterly about his upcoming court martial and contempt for the Marine Corps. Kelley was court-martialed, convicted, sentenced to 12 months’ confinement, and given a “bad conduct” discharge in 2014.
It was later revealed that the Air Force had failed to enter Kelley’s conviction (for beating his wife and infant stepson) into the National Criminal Instant Background Check System. Had that been done, he would have been prohibited from buying guns.
Both Kelley and Whitman owned multiple weapons which they were able to obtain legally, despite the fact that both had displayed violent behavior and symptoms of a severe mental health disorder long before they went on killing sprees.
The U.S. had 90 public mass shootings (defined as four or more victims) from 1966 to 2012, according to one study. The Philippines was next highest with 18, Russia had 15, Yemen 11 and France 10. In the past 18 years, Colorado alone has had two mass shootings in which a total of 27 people died—one in a school (Columbine), the other in a movie theater (Aurora).
We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Guns are part of everyday life in America. The United States has an estimated 270 million guns, perhaps two-thirds in private hands. There’s no simple solution, but as parents, as a community, as a nation, we owe it to our kids to do better.
Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams. He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular. Visit Tom’s blog at http://open.salon.com/blog/dakotakid