THE DESERT SUN
In San Bernardino aftermath, gun-control talk rages on
Lanani Severns was sitting on a rock outside a San Bernardino office Wednesday as gunshots ripped through the air. Looking down onto a nearby golf course, she noticed an empty chair and ice chest. The image of a hunter appeared in her mind, but soon faded.
Severns froze as she thought more about that audible spray of 15, maybe 20, bullets. Until police began to arrive, she was unable to move.
“Then I realized,” she said, “they couldn't be (from) a hunter, because it was so rapid fire.”
Police said a man and a woman fired those shots inside the Inland Regional Center, killing at least 14 people and injuring another 17. The couple fled the scene in an SUV and were later killed. Police identified them as Syed Farook, a 28-year-old San Bernardino County environmental health specialist, and Tashfeen Malik, 27. Farook had briefly attended a county employee holiday party taking place at the regional center Wednesday, left "angry" and came back with Malik. Both wore tactical gear, were armed with assault rifles and handguns and opened fire, San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said late Wednesday.
Over the past half-century, at least 228 people have been killed in shootings that include 10 or more victims, Desert Sun research shows. Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino — only the latest blow to a working-class city that's just crawling out of bankruptcy — could end up as the deadliest in California since 1984, when a gunman killed 21 and wounded 19 at a San Ysidro McDonald's.
The political rhetoric surrounding those two incidents, however, will undoubtedly be different. In 1984, major press outlets largely used the word “terror” as an adjective rather than a noun, and far more sparingly. But as Americans come to grips with the growing threat of terrorism, both domestic and international, the debate about the balance of civil liberties and public safety in the 21st Century rages on. Wednesday’s massacre is the latest in a string of mass shootings that have prompted louder calls to curb gun violence.
Still, hours before the shooting began, USA Today reported that more Americans had their backgrounds checked purchasing guns on Black Friday — which also coincided with a mass shooting in Colorado Springs — than any day on record.
The 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which a gunman killed 27 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, catapulted mass shootings into the public consciousness. In its day, the 1986 shooting of 14 postal workers by a colleague in Oklahoma gained national attention, but is one of many tragedies that have faded from public view.
During a mid-afternoon news conference, David Bowdich, the assistant director in charge of FBI Los Angeles, was asked whether the incident rose to the level of “terrorism” and responded, “We do not know.” He reiterated this claim as the evening went on. Yet the federal government’s own definition of terrorism, as a violent act intended “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” is broad enough to include a tragedy like this one — even though the motivations of the shooters remain unknown.
Indeed, police Chief Burguan was more comfortable calling a spade "a spade." At minimum, he said, “we have a domestic-type terrorism situation,” as the shooters came with long rifles and handguns, and acted as though they were on a mission.
Keith Nelson, vice president of the Inland Regional Center board, confirmed reports that a conference room where the shooters unloaded their weapons had been rented out for San Bernardino County employees.
Comments coming from outside the center sounded angry and mournful, as witnesses described an initially chaotic scene with hundreds of cops and triage units that steadily became organized. People were seen being wheeled away on gurneys and boarded on buses to safer spaces. A subsequent police chase ended with one injured officer.
Farhan Khan, the brother-in-law of the identified suspect Farook, told those at a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) news conference in Anaheim on Wednesday night that he was "very sad that people lost their lives out there" and had no idea why Farook would be involved.
“I spoke to him about a week ago," Khan said. "I have no idea why he would do that. Why would he do something like this. I have absolutely no idea. I’m in shock myself.”
Hardly had the smoke cleared Wednesday afternoon before the mood also turned political.
Matt Burkert, 51, of Yucaipa was parked outside while waiting for his wife, who works at a nearby San Bernardino County Child Protective Services office that was on lockdown. Shootings happen on a regular basis across the country, he said, but no one expected it to happen in San Bernardino.
“This is a time when you want the Second Amendment to go away,” Burkert said. “Guns belong in the hands of professionals.”
Local and statewide politicians chose their words carefully. As the day went on, many, including Gov. Jerry Brown and Rep. Raul Ruiz, spoke simply of the tragedy and heartbreak that just unfolded. Ruiz added: “These cold-blooded acts of violence in our nation have to stop.”
National politicians not so much. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair, dispensed with all pleasantries when she said in a statement, “Thoughts won’t reduce gun violence in our country. Sensible reforms will. Our nation’s leaders have a moral obligation to prevent the murder of innocent people by enacting reforms to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, and those on national security watch lists.”
Pew Research Center surveys suggest that the public's opinion hasn't changed much since Newtown. Americans still overwhemingly favor laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns (79 percent) and back the creation of a federal database to track all gun sales (70 percent).
A smaller majority (57 percent) supports a ban on assault-style weapons — the same ones used Wednesday.