Preparedness & Recovery

After Massacre, a Texas Town Says More Guns are the Answer

The mass shooting at First Baptist Church that killed 26 people and wounded 20 others has not made the residents of this rural area east of San Antonio reconsider their belief in guns. It has only reinforced the sense that the answer to America's mass shooting problem is not gun control.

by Naomi Martin, The Dallas Morning News / November 10, 2017
A law enforcement official walks past the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas AP/Eric Gay

(TNS) - With horror, the mother realized the thunderous bangs near her house were gunfire. She grabbed her three children and two firearms, and hid in the bathroom, shaking and scared.

"The only sense of protection that I felt like I had were those guns in my house," said Lagena Garcia, 31.

The mass shooting at First Baptist Church that killed 26 people and wounded 20 others has not made the residents of this rural area east of San Antonio reconsider their belief in guns. It has only reinforced the sense that the answer to America's mass shooting problem is not gun control. It's more guns -- more guns in the hands of good people who can stop the bad guy.

After all, they say, the shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, was stopped by a neighbor of the church, Stephen Willeford, who confronted him with a rifle. Without Willeford's armed response, there's no telling how many more would've died.

"We all understand a gun did not kill my sister," said Jimmy Stevens, 58, the brother of Peggy Warden, who died in First Baptist. "It was a sick person who did that. The man from across the street shot this man with the exact kind of gun [the gunman] was using."

Locals here widely shared comments by President Donald Trump praising Willeford's actions and saying new gun laws are not the answer. Had there been more restrictions in place, Trump said, "There would've been no difference three days ago, and you might not have had that very brave" Good Samaritan. "Instead of having 26 dead, you would've had hundreds more dead," the president said.

In today's rage-filled political culture, each side of the gun control debate shouts over the other. Politicians on the right who call for looser gun laws in the wake of shootings are often met with ridicule and disbelief by those on the left.

But ask just about anyone in the South Texas area around Sutherland Springs how they feel after Sunday's shooting, and it's clear that the elected officials advocating for more gun rights are reflecting what their constituents want. In this community and others like it, people aren't in the habit of relying on police to protect them, they say. They've grown up shooting, and understand the importance of gun safety and self-defense, they add.

Bobbie Jo Talley, 38, who works in hospitality in neighboring Floresville, said she doesn't want herself or her kids to become unarmed victims of a madman. She's taught her children how to shoot. Their guns help them protect themselves, she said, and if the government implements stricter background checks, that's only going to hurt law-abiding citizens, she believes. The criminals will always break the law, she said.

"If they want them bad enough, they're going to get them," Talley said. "There's always a way to get something you're not supposed to have."

Advocates of stricter gun regulation argue that America's seemingly bottomless appetite for guns and its legal ability to obtain more and more powerful weapons have left the nation alone among developed countries as a place where mass murder occurs on a staggering scale all but unknown in the rest of the world.

Many residents of Sutherland Springs dismiss that argument. People here accept guns as a way to protect themselves and their families.

There is no question that Texas' loose gun laws evolved in response to the sentiments of its people. In 1991, many Texans felt defenseless after a shooter massacred 23 at a Luby's in Killeen. Suzanna Hupp watched both her parents die that day, after having left her gun in the car. She ran for state office on a platform of expanding the right to carry a concealed handgun. She won election and took her advocacy to the floor of the state legislature.

A large number of Sutherland Springs residents have a firearm in their home, car or both. Many say they want to be ready to shoot a coyote or a hog, if needed.

It's hard to quantify gun ownership in Texas, where you don't need a license to carry a long gun such as a rifle or shotgun, anywhere, or a handgun in your home or car. But many people still obtain licenses to carry handguns -- usually concealed -- in most other public places. Getting a license is a quick process of a one-day class, a marksmanship test and a written exam.

In Wilson County, which includes Sutherland Springs, 9 percent of residents have a license to carry a handgun -- a rate that's nearly double that of the state of Texas.

And that number is likely to rise after the church shooting.

Fred Ohnesorge, owner of Acme Gun & Gear in Floresville, said he's seen an uptick in interest in concealed carry in the past few days. Usually, around two people a day enter the store to inquire about his handgun license class. But this week, at least 15 people have entered each day, he said.

On Thursday, one of the people attending the licensing class was an associate pastor at First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, Ohnesorge said.

The class instructor warns the students of the long-lasting impact of using their firearms as self-defense, Ohnesorge said.

"You could be 100 percent in the right, but your life could change forever," Ohnesorge said, adding that not everyone is mentally fit to make that "ultimate decision." Hesitating in a shoot-out situation can cost you your life, he said.

It's a grim reality, residents said, but people will likely start bringing their guns to church in droves now.

"A lot more people are gonna want to get licenses," said Matthew Hernandez, 16, a Floresville High student who used to attend First Baptist. "It's sad to say you have to take a gun to church in order for you and your family to feel safe, but it could happen anywhere."

Still, not everyone here opposes tighter gun restrictions. Aloys Manka, 68, who lives near First Baptist, said he wanted more in-depth background checks and didn't like the loosening of regulations.

"Everybody and anybody can buy a gun if they want to," he said. "They should've never passed those laws."

Erica Meche, 39, a rodeo rider in Sutherland Springs, doesn't own any guns. But she smiled as she explained what she'd do to anyone who threatened her.

"I'll just rope 'em and drag 'em," she said. "Rope 'em and hang 'em."

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