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In Sutherland Springs, a mass shooting draws desire for more - not fewer - guns

The gun rights community has long had a favorite saying: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. What happened Sunday offered for that community a resounding echo of their belief.

Sutherland Springs, Texas, resident Kevin Langdon owns about 50 guns. In the small town, he said, “Everyone has everyone else’s back, and guns are how we keep one another safe.”
Sutherland Springs, Texas, resident Kevin Langdon owns about 50 guns. In the small town, he said, “Everyone has everyone else’s back, and guns are how we keep one another safe.”Read moreCarolyn Van Houten / Washington Post

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas – Many of this small town's residents had just learned, mostly by word of mouth, the names of the people slain or wounded at the First Baptist Church, and the horror unleashed by a gunman was too fresh for anyone to process fully. But one thing was emphatically clear Monday: These Texans weren't about to embrace gun control.

This is a place where people carry firearms as routinely as they wear boots. They carry them out of sight, tucked in a waistband or in a pocket like a billfold. Or they carry them openly.

"There are lots of guns in the community. Most people own guns in Texas," Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said Monday. "But guns don't kill people, people kill people."

The gun rights community has long had a favorite saying: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. What happened Sunday offered for that community a resounding echo of their belief. A local man – described by officials as "our Texas hero" – who lives near First Baptist grabbed his own weapon and shot gunman Devin Patrick Kelley outside the church, forcing him to flee.

Then the man, along with another resident, got in a vehicle and chased Kelley at high speeds. Kelley was found dead in his vehicle on the side of a road about 10 miles from the church. He had been hit twice – in the leg and the torso – and also had a self-inflected gunshot wound, according to his autopsy. The resident who shot Kelley did not answer his door, and a sheriff's deputy said the family did not want people on the property.

The second resident, Johnnie Langendorff, described his actions as "act now, ask questions later."

What some people were saying Monday was that the massacre could have been stopped sooner had the worshipers in the church been carrying. The attack could signal that a change is needed, said Brandy Johnson, 68, an evangelical minister who moved to Sutherland Springs a few months ago. Even in a church service in a one-stoplight town, someone should be tapped to be on the lookout for trouble, she said.

"I think there should be some designated watchers and some designated firearm carriers," she said.

Johnson said she worked for many years for the Department of Homeland Security and was trained to be observant: "Look for the weird. Look for twitches. Look for nervousness."

Pastor A.T. Tor, 39, brought a group of worshipers from San Antonio, about 40 minutes away, and he saw this as a spiritual crisis rather than one involving powerful firearms.

"I don't think this is a gun issue. I think it is a condition-of-the-heart issue," he said. "If this was a gun issue, you'd have this way more. Think about how many people around here have guns. It is the person behind the gun."

Resident Mike Jordan, 50, has a tattoo on the right side of his lower leg that he said embodies everything he stands for: two smoking 1847 Colt Walkers beneath a state of Texas, colored red, white and blue.

For rural Texans like Jordan, who grew up around guns, the weapons are not just symbols of self-reliance, they're a way of life.

"At any given time, you might see me with an AR-15 on my shoulder walking in my neighborhood," said Jordan, who estimated that he owns about 20 guns.

While the majority of Sutherland Springs residents don't take advantage of the state's liberal open-carry law, residents said, most people do carry concealed weapons, and most households own at least one weapon and usually several more. Seeing high-caliber weapons out in the open, especially if the muzzle is pointed down and the gun is strapped to the owner's shoulder, doesn't cause alarm.

Hearing multiple shots fired in town is more likely to bring to mind hunting, rather than a gunman on a killing spree. A day after the church massacre involving an assault-style rifle, residents said their resolve to carry those weapons had only strengthened.

"What happened in that church should show everybody that it's not a gun problem, it's a people problem," said Jordan, whose grandson was nearly shot by Kelley. "A screwdriver in the hands of the wrong person can be a deadly weapon."

Kevin Langdon doesn't carry a screwdriver, but it's not unusual to find the retired 62-year-old teacher carrying multiple guns – usually small arms he uses to kill rattlesnakes and copperheads. At home, on the south side of Sutherland Springs, Langdon owns about 50 weapons, ranging from Civil War-era antiques to modern guns, such as an AK-47, which he uses to kill wild hogs that wander onto his 10-acre property and destroy his crops. Without an assault rifle, a charging hog can be deadly, he said.

It's people, however – not snakes or wild hogs – that locals worry about most. Langdon's neighbors, who have formed an unofficial watch program, all own rifles, he said. They use the scopes to monitor one another's properties in case a stranger approaches – a constant concern because of the traffic that passes through town along Highway 87, bringing big-city strangers from nearby San Antonio, he said.

"If someone were to hit a woman at a gas station, there'd be 20 men on top of him beating a new lesson into him," he said. "Everyone has everyone else's back, and guns are how we keep one another safe."

But it was a man with local ties, not a stranger, who ended up being the greatest danger to the community Sunday – a man who shouldn't have been allowed to purchase guns in the first place because of a domestic-assault conviction while he was in the military. It was the lack of guns in that church, Langdon and other locals said, that put Sutherland Springs residents at risk.

"If everyone was armed with a gun in that church, how many people would've been killed?" he said. "Probably zero."

Authorities revealed that Kelley had been in the midst of a domestic dispute with relatives, including his mother-in-law, who has worshiped at First Baptist but was not present Sunday. The method of the attack seemed to draw inspiration from other recent mass shootings. Kelley dressed in pseudo-commando clothes: all-black "tactical" gear and a mask. He chose a soft target: people effectively trapped in a confined space. He used a semiautomatic rifle.

Rick Schultz, 58, who retired from the military, said: "You pass a bunch of laws – who is going to obey those laws? Law-abiding citizens. . . . We just need to harden up soft targets. Having someone in there with a concealed weapon."

Sutherland Springs is a town nowhere in particular, with a single blinking light at the main crossroads. The land here is wide open under a big sky. There's no downtown to speak of, just a string of businesses, including a Dollar General, a Valero gas station with a convenience store, and the post office.

Most of the people in town Monday were strangers – the media, law enforcement personnel, people from the Red Cross or the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, and so on. A forest of cameras had arisen a block from First Baptist. Makeshift tents, erected overnight by authorities, extended from the front of the church, creating a crime-scene zone out of sight of overhead helicopters or drones.

"INCIDENT AHEAD" declared a road sign at the edge of town. Religious pilgrims had arrived, coming from far away to pray at the scene of the massacre.

The grieving families found shelter and comfort a mile up a country road, far from the media scrum, at a church guarded by sheriff's deputies.