‘Something needs to be done’: Talking about guns and race in the US
On Tuesday afternoon, Liliana Bustos, a 27-year-old waitress in El Paso, Texas, brought her 2-year-old son to see the growing memorial outside the Walmart commemorating the 22 people killed in the mass shooting there on Saturday.
The shooting, Bustos said, “changes everything.” She now plans to go to the grocery store and places like Walmart alone, without her son. “I don’t want to risk him,” she said, adding that she’s now fearful of sending him to school one day.
“I think my best option will be homeschool instead of putting him in danger,” Bustos said. “He’s the only thing I have right now.”
Nearly 2,000 miles away, inside a Target store in the Washington, DC, suburbs of Fairfax, Virginia, that same sentiment was echoed by another Hispanic mother, 35-year-old Colombian-born Melanie Cepeda, who says she’s also considering homeschooling to keep her daughter safe from gun violence.
“It’s one thing if you hear about these shootings, but when you know they’re targeting brown people, it’s very alarming,” Cepeda said as her daughter, heading into the fifth grade, placed a sparkly bookbag into their Target shopping cart.
For her, the problem is simple: too many people have access to too many guns. The government, she says, should put more restrictions on who can own guns.
“Just anyone can get them,” Cepeda said.
In nearby Manassas, Virginia, 23-year-old Ian Foster bristles at the idea that guns are the problem. Foster, an employee at C & R Firearms, gets frustrated when people blame gun owners after mass shootings, and argues that the “overwhelming majority” of them are responsible.
“It kind of hurts when someone says it’s your fault,” said Foster.
For the most part, the weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, have prompted politicians in Washington to retreat to their corners. But across the country, Americans are having more nuanced conversations about gun violence.
In more than a dozen interviews with people across the country, from Greeley, Colorado, to Manassas, Virginia, from Southern California to the Maryland shore, and in El Paso and Dayton, the sites of the most recent tragedies, CNN has attempted to capture the tenor of that conversation.
Some say they are numb to the increasing frequency of mass shootings. Several say they are planning to make changes to their daily lives, and that the steady stream of killings makes them cautious about doing everyday activities. Others express a palpable sense of resignation that mass shootings are not something to be solved so much as a terrible fact of life to be managed.
The data shows how complex the debate over guns and mass shootings is. For starters, America has more guns than people, with one estimate from the Small Arms Survey coming in at 393 million guns in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of adults say gun laws should be stricter than they are today. Large majorities support banning sales of “assault guns” and instituting background checks for private gun purchases, but large numbers of Americans also support more concealed carry laws and putting guns in the hands of school officials and employees as a way to deter mass shootings.
This complexity is also apparent in how people responded to questions from CNN. Many expressed a concern for safety; others an outrage about the lack of action by lawmakers to restrict gun access. Some were fearful that Second Amendment rights would be threatened, while others worried that ethnic and racial minorities would be increasingly targeted. Others still grappled with the desire for positive change while recognizing the limits of stopping people bent on killing.
The one constant that emerges from these interviews is that something needs to change. The problem is coming to an agreement on what that “something” is.
Latinos in fear
What makes this weekend’s shootings unique is not just that they happened within 24 hours of each other, but that they intertwined with two other issues dividing the country: immigration and race. Many Latino and Hispanic communities around the country are already on edge given the rhetoric from President Trump. The shooting in El Paso has only heightened the anxiety.
Every day outside the Home Depot on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California, 50 to 70 Latino men gather in the parking lot waiting for contractors or homeowners to come by with unofficial offers for work.
On Tuesday morning, a man who identified himself as Elias and who did not want to give his full name, said he wasn’t surprised that Latinos were the target of a mass shooting, and worries that it could happen again.
“Of course we are scared of some random person coming to harm us,” Elias said in Spanish, noting that most of the men are undocumented and speak little to no English. “Some people get upset just because we are here, trying to find work, and for no other reason, but I do think there is strength in numbers and there are so many of us here.”
The men gathered here are pessimistic, Elias added. They don’t believe the Texas shooting will change the racism directed toward them, or the President’s rhetoric toward Latinos. He and a man nearby he identified only as Jose think it will get worse before it will get better.
Across town later that afternoon, families gathered at the historic Mexican marketplace on Olvera Street expressed similar feelings of fear and anxiety.
“It is scary to think it can happen anywhere, we are so vulnerable,” said Fabiola Lucas as she and her family strolled around the plaza after lunch at a nearby taqueria. “We can’t go to the store, to shop, without thinking about where your kids are, where the exits are. Anyone can have a gun.”
Born in Mexico, Lucas has lived in Los Angeles for 20 years. She said racism toward Latinos has always existed, but what’s changed in her view is that racists now feel validated by Trump’s rhetoric to lash out.
“Everyone says how Mexico is so violent, but the violence there, I believe, is among cartel members, while in the US, anyone can be a victim. It is so random and no place is safe,” said Lucas, “Not one of these mass shooters has been a Latino. They all have been white males. The president keeps blaming us for the crime and the violence. Why?”
No more business as usual
It’s not just Latinos feeling unsafe. The Dayton shooting that killed nine people has rocked residents in this Ohio city that was already suffering from the opioid epidemic.
Andre Ortiz and his fiancee Caysee Brown frequent Dayton’s Oregon entertainment district where the shooting took place. Ortiz, 34, and Brown, 36, knew one of the victims, Lola Oglesby.
“It feels a little different to even leave the house these days,” said Brown. “It just doesn’t feel like you can go anywhere. Can’t go to Walmart. Can’t go to church. Can’t go to a movie theater without the fear of something happening or something going wrong.”
Ortiz said he’s had to talk with the couple’s four kids about what happened, and that he’s skeptical that anything will be done in the aftermath of the twin shootings. “It doesn’t sound like a problem we’re ready to embrace or speak truthfully about,” he said. “It’s not video games. It’s not dark corners of the internet. It’s not just purely mental illness.”
He added: “There is a hatred that is built in.”
Dayton resident Dale Banks, 46, lives half a mile from the site of the shooting. A gun owner, Banks said background checks to identify mentally ill people before they buy a gun would be a “start.” He said that “responsible gun owners” shouldn’t be punished but then wondered aloud why anyone would need 100-round clips to enjoy an AR-15 rifle.
Banks’ wife, 59-year-old Christie Wishon, cut in. “Stop the long rifle,” she said. “I don’t think that an arsenal weapon that can kill nine people in 30 seconds should be allowed for a normal person to have. I think it should be in the military.”
Scared at the beach
The wave of the mass shootings has some Americans feeling unsafe in places that would normally be considered secure, like on their summer vacation.
Keeping cover from some afternoon rain underneath a novelty shop along the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, David and Hanh Waskeiwicz, with their 17-month-old daughter in tow, told CNN on Tuesday that the recent shootings have made them reconsider going places with large crowds.
“This is why we don’t want to go to big events, because things like this happen and it scares me,” Hanh said, adding that she has thought about how she could best shield her young daughter if an attack were to take place.
David said that the shootings have made him more aware of his surroundings and have changed where — and when — his family goes places, including the beach.
“We’ve actually been avoiding large crowds,” he said. “Today, for the most part, we’re kind of happy we chose Tuesday. We figured it would be the least busy time to come.”
While waiting at a bus stop with his family after spending the day at the beach, Baltimore resident Ray France said that while he’s always aware of his surroundings, the recent mass shootings have made him far more alert.
“I don’t talk about it to my family, but I keep my eyes open,” said France. “It could happen anywhere, especially where there’s lots of people. Just like on the boardwalk today, someone could jump out and just start shooting.”
Back to school concerns
As summer break winds down and students across the country prepare to head back to the classroom, school officials are reviewing security protocols and grappling with the risks of gun violence.
Many public systems began their school years on the Monday after the shootings, including several in the metro Atlanta area. A spokesman for Gwinnett County Public Schools told CNN the systems schools have begun using visitor management systems to monitor who is entering elementary and middle schools.
Erin Weir, 17, says security measures have noticeably changed at Roswell High School in Fulton County, Georgia, where she is a senior. “They totally buffed up security after the Parkland shooting,” said Weir while at her home in Roswell, a north Atlanta suburb. “We used to not have lockdowns and intruder drills that much but now we have them like once a month.”
Sitting inside their family living room, Erin’s mother Katy, a 50-year-old elementary school teacher in the metro Atlanta area, says she’s talked with her own children about the potential for gun violence at school. She says her school has an annual meeting with faculty about how to respond to an intruder and that schools are increasing the number of security measures by requiring badge access for certain doors and upping the drills for potential active shooters.
Despite all that, Katy Weir said she’s frustrated there are no straightforward solutions to the problem.
“A mad person with a gun on their hands is much more likely to do damage than one without one. But I understand we need to be able to own guns to protect ourselves,” she said.
“Something needs to be done,” she added. “I just don’t know what it is.”
Gun enthusiasts have their say
Across the country, gun enthusiasts and gun industry workers insist that more gun laws aren’t the answer.
David Becker, 50, who owns the Miami Armory gun store in Dayton, said the solution is to enforce existing laws, rather than pass new ones. If that was done, “You would certainly mitigate some of the crime that you see,” said Becker, who expressed skepticism that mental health and juvenile delinquent screenings could effectively find would-be killers because of the nation’s privacy laws.
When it comes to solutions, Becker said the pro-gun community is wary of the “red flag” laws proposed by Trump earlier this week. The perception is they would be difficult to enforce without violating due process and could lead to tighter restrictions for all gun owners. In the end, he’s not sure anything could have prevented what happened. “What could we have done differently? Not a thing.”
When Lindsey Murphy, a clerk at Clark Brothers Gun Shop in Fauquier County, Virginia, sees reports of mass shootings on the news, she doesn’t question gun laws. She questions what’s changed in American society to cause a rise in the number of shootings the country is experiencing.
“Why is it now and not then? Why is it nowadays? What has changed with society, with, maybe there’s something more to it than just you know as a lot of people bring up mental issues or something,” Murphy said. “There’s more to it than changing a gun law’s going to fix.”
Inside a barbecue restaurant in Greeley, Colorado, a more conservative city an hour north of Denver, there was a palpable sense of hostility toward the idea that restrictions on guns would be fair or effective. The restaurant is hosting a concealed carry class this week.
One farmer, a father and gun owner eating dinner with his family who declined to give his name, said that Americans “are numb” to the rise in mass shootings, and argued that the lack of guns, not the prevalence of them, are the bigger problem. “If you have a gun-free zone, what does that broadcast to the world?” he asked. “You’re advertising to a shooter this is a gun-free zone.” He did say that “deeper and more intense background checks and maybe even waiting period” would help keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people.
At a table nearby, local mom Amy Flores said guns are not the problem plaguing the country — it’s a wayward culture.
“It used to be that parents set boundaries. Now they are afraid of their own kids,” Flores said, sitting next to her 5-year-old son. She added that protective action, not words, will help prevent mass shootings.
“You can only prepare your kids so much. You can’t walk on eggshells. You have to live life,” Flores said.
Back in Dayton, 23-year-old Devin Hamlin has lived a life scarred by gun violence. He lost a younger brother in a shooting two years ago and lives just blocks away from the site of this weekend’s shooting. Hamlin says something must be done to fix what’s broken, but he’s torn over what should be done.
“I definitely want somebody to be able to protect themselves, like I’d want to be able to protect myself,” said Hamlin. “But at the same time, you’re letting the wrong people get ahold of them. That’s where the problem is. It’s hard to weed out who’s the good guys and the bad guys.”
Hamlin continued, repeating the undefined refrain now familiar to countless Americans across the country: “Something needs to change.”
CNN’s Eric Bradner, Ellie Kaufman, Holmes Lybrand, LaRell Reynolds, Sara Weisfeldt, Madeline Burakoff and Michaela Pocock contributed to this report.