Texas churches meet, mourn; U.S. debate over how to curb school shootings heats up

Posted: May 21, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Nathan Jordan, 18, a senior at Alvin High School, sobs during a service at Arcadia First Baptist Church on Sunday, two days after a shooting that killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

SANTA FE, Texas -- Congregations in a Texas community gathered Sunday for their first services since a gunman entered a high school and killed 10 people, with one pastor lamenting the grief "that none of us can comprehend."

Two days after the deaths of eight students and two substitute teachers, the pastor of Dayspring Church acknowledged the pain wracking Santa Fe, a town of 13,000 near Houston.

"They will never be forgotten in this community, these young people, children just going to school," said Brad Drake, who then read the names of the dead, including a slain student who attended services at Dayspring.

"We have families today that are grieving a grief that none of us can comprehend."

Click here for larger versions
Photos by the Associated Press

The family of the slain student, Angelique Ramirez, did not attend the service. She was a member of the church's youth ministry, Drake said.

"She was a sweet young lady, had a style all of her own," he recalled. "She almost always had a new hairstyle."

Kelly Ward, who runs a ministry in Springfield, Mo., and is a licensed counselor, took the stage to urge congregants not to hold in their emotions.

"How do we get through this? What do we do?" Ward asked. "The answer is to let everyone grieve, including yourselves."

He said people can help grieving families or friends simply by listening.

"No words are going to fix this. But your presence, being there is what the families need," Ward said. "Why is our presence so important? Because dwelling in us is the spirit of God."

Church leaders wore green T-shirts with gold lettering -- the colors of Santa Fe High School. Inside an outline of the state of Texas, the letters spelled out the verses of 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed."

In a nearby church kitchen, parishioners prepared plates of barbecue to be sold after the service, with all the proceeds going to victims' families.

At Arcadia First Baptist Church, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hugged parishioners as they arrived. Among them was Monica Bracknell, an 18-year-old senior who survived the shooting. She stopped to tell the governor that the attack should not be turned into a political battle over gun control.

Surrounded by television cameras, photographers and reporters, she told Abbott that guns were not to blame.

"People are making this into a political issue," she said she told him. "This is not a political issue. It's not a gun-law issue."

Elsewhere, families planned funerals. Services for 17-year-old Pakistani exchange student Sabika Sheikh took place Sunday at a mosque in suburban Houston, drawing several Santa Fe students, Houston's mayor and two members of Congress.

"You imagine what it's like for her parents -- all their hopes and dreams wrapped up in this child," said Farha Ahmed, an attorney from nearby Sugar Land, who said he was drawn to attend the funeral. "And the next time they will see her, she'll be in a casket."

'HARDENING' SCHOOLS

On Sunday, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for a "hardening" of the nation's school buildings in the wake of the attack.

Patrick, a Republican, said more needs to be done to keep shooters away from students, such as restricting school entrances and arming teachers.

"When you're facing someone who's an active shooter, the best way to take that shooter down is with a gun. But even better than that is four to five guns to one," he said on CNN's State of the Union.

Santa Fe High School was considered a hardened target, with an active-shooter plan and two armed police officers on patrol. Last fall, school district leaders made plans to eventually arm teachers and staff members under the state's school marshal program.

Patrick said he had talked to students who said the shooting might have been stopped if one of the teachers, a former Marine, had been carrying a gun. A school resource officer and a school district police chief had engaged the shooter.

On Fox News Sunday, incoming National Rifle Association President Oliver North said Santa Fe High School wasn't following the NRA's School Shield Program. That program, devised by a task force led by Asa Hutchinson two years before he was elected governor of Arkansas, addresses best practices in security infrastructure, technology, personnel, training and policy.

"If School Shield had been in place, [it's] far less likely that would have happened," North said.

Patrick suggested staggering start times so students could be funneled through just one or two entrances.

"We have devalued life, whether it's through abortion, whether it's the breakup of families or violent movies -- and particularly violent video games, which now outsell music -- and music," he said. "Psychologists and psychiatrists will tell you that students are desensitized to violence and have lost empathy to their victims by watching hours and hours of violent video games."

At one point, ABC host George Stephanopoulos noted that violent video games are played by teenagers all over the world, but that the United States was unique in its high rate of school gun violence.

"I can't compare one country with another country, because there are many variables in all these countries," Patrick said. "Here's what I know: We live in a violent culture that devalues life. Kids go to schools that are not as safe as government buildings."

North also blamed the problem on "youngsters who are steeped in a culture of violence" in which many young boys have "been on Ritalin" since early childhood.

"They've been drugged in many cases," the retired Marine said.

ADDRESSING VIOLENCE

Patrick was followed on ABC by Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jaime, 14, was killed in the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

"I think those are the most idiotic comments I have ever heard regarding gun safety," Guttenberg said. "He should be removed from office."

On NBC's Meet the Press, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., criticized the NRA, saying it had influenced Congress not to address gun violence.

"It's a three-letter word," Sanders said. "It's the NRA, and it's Trump and the Republicans who don't have the guts to stand up to these people."

North had noted that his goal as president of the NRA is to increase its membership of 6 million people to 7 million, and then ask every member to recruit one more to form a 14 million-member group.

North was followed on Fox News Sunday by gun-control activist and retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was critically injured in a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in which six people were killed.

Kelly agreed that schools had to offer students better protections but said more had to be done to prevent the proliferation of guns and to make sure that irresponsible people and criminals "can't get the gun in the first place."

"There are things that work," said Kelly, who described himself as a hunter who keeps his guns locked in a safe and who advocated legislation that requires parents to safely store firearms.

Kelly, who said he owns eight guns, co-founded the gun-control advocacy group Giffords with a mission "to encourage elected officials to stand up for solutions to prevent gun violence and protect responsible gun ownership."

The student gun-control activists who have spoken out since the Parkland shooting, he said, are "motivated, smart, articulate and angry." And, he continued, they have "a right to be angry."

The problem, Kelly said, is "not because we don't have enough guns." If that were the issue, the United States would be the safest country in the world, Kelly said.

Information for this article was contributed by Juan A. Lozano, Claire Galofaro and Paul J. Weber of The Associated Press; and by Frances Stead Sellers, Michael Scherer, Todd C. Frankel, Tim Craig and Brittney Martin of The Washington Post.

A Section on 05/21/2018