SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — An alarming number of deaths caused by mass shootings has spurred the national debate over guns, with some arguing for regulation and others pointing to the armed good Samaritan who helped stop the carnage here.
Despite the differences of opinion, everyone agrees that the number of mass shootings and deaths from those incidents is up. Further, all agree that the likelihood something tragic could happen anywhere means people need to be aware and prepare.
During a news conference this week in Sutherland Springs, site of the latest mass shooting, Christopher Combs, the FBI special agent in charge in San Antonio, said the number of “active shooter” cases across the country is rising.
According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, a public mass shooting is one in which four or more people selected indiscriminately are killed, mirroring the FBI definition of mass murder.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines an active shooter as a person attempting to kill people with no pattern or method to his selection of victims.
Emergency calls to law enforcement here were broadcast on police radios as an active shooter situation, as Devin P. Kelley, 26, began shooting outside the First Baptist Church and then entered, methodically shooting congregants in the house of worship.
Kelley then was engaged in a shootout with a Sutherland Springs resident armed with a semi-automatic rifle. Kelley dropped his weapon after he was shot by the good Samaritan and fled as two residents gave chase in a high-speed pursuit. Kelley was later found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
His death ended the violent ordeal, which left 26 dead and shattered this small South Texas community. It was an event that local residents said they were not prepared for, or even thought was possible.
Las Vegas massacre
The church shooting occurred barely a month after a lone gunman with 23 rifles — 12 equipped to make those guns mimic fully automatic weapons — used his Mandalay Bay suite perch above to fire into a crowd of concertgoers on the Strip, killing 58 people and wounding more than 500.
The victims were outdoors, enjoying the Route 91 Harvest country western festival, when bullets rained down, causing confusion, fear and death.
Because of the increase in these horrific massacres, Combs said everyone needs to prepare themselves for the eventuality that he or she may be involved in one at some point.
Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas have nothing in common geographically or demographically. One’s a small, rural unincorporated town, and the other is an urban destination point for international tourism.
The apparent randomness of other recent mass shootings highlights the difficulty in preparing for an indiscriminate attack.
In 2016, a gunman opened fire on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people in what was then the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, shooting took place in an elementary school, and the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, happened when a madman opened fire during a midnight screening.
The 2007 Virginia Tech massacre took place on a college campus, where 32 people died in several locations.
“I think everybody, no matter where you are, needs to think about this,” Combs said. “If you’re in a school, if you go to college, if you’re at the movies, we should all be thinking about ‘What are we going to do if a crisis breaks out right here?’”
Marathon security precautions
Las Vegas will have increased police security Sunday for the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon on the Strip.
Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Andy Walsh said the extra security is in light of the Oct. 1 shooting, as well as the truck attack on pedestrians in New York on Oct. 31. The number of police assigned to the event is up to 350 officers, with helicopter surveillance and tactical shooters.
Other security measures have been in place in Las Vegas, which is experienced at staging large-scale events.
Keith Tolhurst, a retired FBI special special agent in Phoenix, said that, in addition to preparation, public awareness is needed. People need to understand “we don’t live in Kansas anymore.”
“A free society is vulnerable. A prepared society knows the vulnerabilities and hopes for the best but prepares for the worst,” said Tolhurst, a consultant and expert on violent crime, snipers and special weapons and tactics.
Of all the recent mass shootings, the Las Vegas massacre stood out to Tolhurst because the gunman used a 32nd-floor sniper’s nest to kill his victims at long range. He was not up close with his victims.
The gunman died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Tolhurst was part of the FBI tactical team that was called in after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head on Jan. 8, 2011, in a grocery store parking lot while meeting with constituents near Tucson.
Giffords recovered from the head wound, but six others were killed, including a federal judge, in the mass shooting. That gunman is serving a life sentence in prison.
In addition to public awareness, events and organizations need to establish a crisis plan.
Once organizations or events establish a crisis plan, they can determine what physical security needs improvement, Tolhurst said, “and fix what you can, then train your people.”