Under a moonlit evening sky, lay minister Mike Gonzales, clad in black, stood in a grassy lot and led a candlelight vigil in a South Texas hamlet that few outside Wilson County had ever heard of until Sunday. The shocked residents of Sutherland Springs and those from nearby communities who had arrived to comfort them were having trouble accepting the fact that the little white-washed Baptist church in the heart of town had become the site of the worst mass shooting in Texas history.
“I mean, you hear about Las Vegas and New York, places like that. How can it be a stone’s throw from your house?” a resident mused, his 14-year-old son standing beside him.
Father and son were achingly aware that inside the building across the road, bullets had torn into the fragile, little body of a 5-year-old boy, into an 18-month-old baby, as well as an expectant mother. They knew that the minister’s 14-year-old daughter, a beloved foster child adopted a few years ago, had been ripped from their lives forever. They knew that their neighbors, at least 26 of them, were gone. The horror of what had happened a few hours earlier was incomprehensible.
Gov. Greg Abbott attended the vigil but didn’t speak. Holding aloft a flickering candle as he sat almost unnoticed in his wheelchair, he listened to the prayers, the recorded music and Gonzales’ words of consolation. Afterward, he spoke quietly to individuals who approached.
In a formal statement, the governor and first lady offered their thoughts and prayers to the people of Sutherland Springs and to the members of the First Baptist Church. So did U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and elected officials across the country.
With due respect to the faith and beliefs of every person, especially the grieving residents of Sutherland Springs, the rote statements of politicians were almost blasphemous in their repetition and meaninglessness. The only response more blasphemous was Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” proposal that worshippers entering the house of the Lord be prepared to shoot to kill.
From Japan, President Trump’s “thoughts and prayers” riff was so stale and scripted that it conveyed all the sincerity of a robocall offering an extended warranty on a kitchen appliance. The irony no doubt escaped the president that he was speaking to tortured souls in small-town Texas from a nation with strict and sensible gun laws. A nation where gun violence is almost unheard of.
Thoughts and prayers. The stock phrase trips off politicians’ tongues so easily, we might as well give our elected gunsters license to abbreviate. When a Sutherland Springs happens again — and it will happen again — let them piously utter “T&P” and then get on with their penchant for ignoring the gun psychosis that afflicts this nation. Get on not only with ignoring but also abetting the psychosis in their Second Amendment idolatry and their craven obeisance to the National Rifle Association.
In offhand remarks to a couple of reporters after the vigil, minister Gonzales, a Sutherland Springs resident and retired Army warrant officer, mentioned how seriously the military treats weapons. “One weapon turns up missing, and the whole base goes on lockdown,” he said. (To be fair, Gonzales holds the shooter responsible, not the gun.)
We don’t take death-dealing weapons as seriously as the military experts do. Unlike every other advanced nation in the world, we accept as collateral damage the murder of a 5-year-old in a house of worship.
The governor is silent. So are Cruz and Cornyn and most other members of Congress. And, of course, so is the man in the White House. They’re silent about the need for universal background checks (that have the support of nine in 10 Americans); about requiring safe storage; about promoting research into smart guns. After a brief post-Las Vegas flurry, they’re silent about banning so-called bump stocks. They’re silent about preventing straw purchases of weapons. Despite lip service to the idea, they do little about expanding mental health services.
They might consider gun buybacks, which seemed to work in Australia. They might consider enlisting military veterans to teach and promote gun safety (Minister Gonzales’ suggestion). On these and numerous other sensible suggestions for trying to end the scourge of mass shootings and the daily gun carnage, the Republicans are silent.
Someday, a wave of outrage and revulsion will sweep across this country. It will leave in its cleansing wake elected officials who sold their souls to the NRA, whose warped view of tangled words in the Constitution unleashed orgies of death. We look forward to that day, no matter how far off. When it comes, we’ll be happy to offer our deathly silent leaders our sincerest T&P.