A Letter from Texas
(Author’s note: The kind words about last week’s dispatch were very encouraging and I am grateful for the feedback. “The Dixie Highway” is the first chapter of a memoir I’ve been working on for several years. The finished book will be entitled, “When Horses Could Fly: A Memoir of the American Dream.” The manuscript is completed in draft form but needs much work in a rewrite. However, as subsequent chapters are finished, I will post them here. I am hoping the final draft will offer a narrative and perspective that counterbalances the story told by J.D. Vance in his “Hillbilly Elegy.”)
“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
We are just past thirty years from an event I wish very much to forget, but I am afraid I never will. A normal workday was underway on October 16, 1991 when I was told to get to Killeen, Texas as fast as possible because of reports of a mass shooting. The term seemed odd to me, but photographer Kirk Swann and I raced north on the Interstate and turned west toward Fort Hood, the largest military reserve in the western world. I wondered if a soldier had commandeered a weapon and had opened fire on the base.
Information on the police scanner was sketchy as we approached Killeen, the town that grew up next to Fort Hood. We started getting digital messages on our pagers from our editors that we needed to go directly to the Luby’s cafeteria. What in the hell could have happened at Luby’s? I tried to envision a shooting of multiple people in the serving line or a retired soldier simply losing their mind over a perceived slight, but killing several people? What kind of motivation might there be?
The scene was a bit difficult to process. When we turned the corner into the parking lot, we saw police cruisers, and more approaching, but nothing was as distracting as the pickup truck that appeared to have been driven through the wall of the restaurant and into the dining room. Police had not yet stretched tape around the crime scene and several officers were standing around as if they did not know what to do. Who would, regardless of their training? Inside the building were 24 dead, one of them was the driver of the pickup truck.
George “Jo Jo” Hennard had earned infamy by perpetrating the worst mass murder in American history. In a fit of rage, he slammed his truck through the wall, opened his door, and began to walk around the dining room, methodically putting bullets into the heads of people who seconds previously were eating lunch. By the time police arrived, he had killed 23, and after an officer shot and wounded Hennard, he turned his own cold hand to take his life. What prompted his anger remains a mystery after three decades, though witnesses said he walked through the room calling women “vipers” and screaming he was going to kill them all.
We watched as the coroner worked the room and then slowly the bodies were zipped into bags and carried to a van or a hearse. These were people who had simply gone out for lunch and were to never return to their families because of something unspeakable and unimaginable. The consequences of Hennard’s terror did not just run through households of the victimized, though. His evil prompted laws and a renewed fixation on guns that still plagues our country.
Suzanna Gratia Hupp was having lunch with her parents, Al and Ursula Kunath Gratia, when Hennard’s truck crashed through the wall and windowpane at the front of the restaurant. Before leaving her vehicle, Hupp took her pistol out of her purse and placed it in the glove box of her car because it was a felony to carry a concealed weapon into a place of business in Texas. When the shooting began, Hupp instinctively reached into her purse, and was struck by the realization of her earlier decision. Her father ran at the gunman and was fatally shot in the chest, and as Hupp led her mother to safety, she turned around to discover she had run to her husband’s side, which is where she was when Hennard walked up and killed her.
Hupp was unwilling to accept the tragedy that took her parents from her. She did what a responsible citizen ought to do and got involved in public life and government. In the ensuing years, Hupp began to talk about changing gun laws to make it legal to carry a concealed weapon in Texas. Her time was spent giving interviews, speeches, writing opinion pieces, and eventually campaigning for the state’s legislature to work on gun control. She was convinced everyone would be safer if they were able to legally carry a concealed weapon for protection. Ann Richards, the Texas governor at the time, with the support of law enforcement, vetoed a conceal carry bill in 1993, which undoubtedly played a role in her losing reelection.
The issue of conceal carry caught the attention of Richards’ successor, Texas Governor George W. Bush and it got Hupp elected to the state legislature. Bush signed a conceal carry measure into law in his first term as governor, just a few years after Richards’ veto, claiming it would make Texas a safer place. To get the license, an applicant had to take 15 hours of training, wear the gun in a shoulder or belt holster, pass a proficiency exam, and pay $140. Suzanna Hupp had accomplished her goal. The only question was whether it might really improve the safety of Texas.
Did it? No. There is incontrovertible evidence that mass killings are far too frequent in this state, and increasingly costly in both human and economic terms. In fact, four of the ten worst such shootings in the modern era took place in Texas. The horror show began in 1966 when Charles Whitman climbed the University of Texas tower and killed 16 people while wounding 30 others before he was killed by two police officers. The act seemed to be explained by Whitman’s mental illness, which ought to have been an early incentive to find a way to keep weapons out of the hands of the unstable. Instead, after Hupp’s accomplishment in pushing conceal carry, gun laws began to be loosened, considerably.
Conceal carry morphed into open carry, which still required a license and training. But in 2021, Texans are living under a constitutional carry law best defined by suggesting any jack leg who can fog a mirror can have a gun, no training required, no license needed. The closest the state comes to offering training is a couple of videos posted on YouTube by the Department of Public Safety. Surely, every gun owner runs to the DPS website to get their training. The Everybody-Get-Your-Gun-Law was pushed by the sitting Texas governor and signed into law with a smile at the Alamo, a site of multiple gun deaths.
Maybe the loss of money will get someone’s attention since the loss of life has not worked. A report from a Congressional Joint Economic Committee in 2019 indicated that gun violence costs the U.S. $229 billion a year, which is equivalent to 1.4 percent of the annual Gross Domestic Product. The study, which was based on data from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Centers for Disease Control, also put the loss to the Texas economy in 2019 at $16.6 billion annually, or about $632 per resident.
Hupp could not know that gun control regulations would continue to be weakened by her successors in the legislature or that mass shooting in schools and churches would begin to proliferate. Her solution seemed logical, and, in fact, it probably was. A properly concealed weapon in a public place frightens no one, but it becomes serviceable if a life-threatening danger arises. Letting anyone have a gun, though, is demonstrably not a good idea. Gun safety or control is rarely a subject among Texas politicians, though, unless it is some tortured language to make certain no measure messes with the Second Amendment.
Polls show that a narrow majority of Texans favor some type of regulation to reduce gun violence, though Republicans overwhelmingly are against any ban on assault rifles, which tend to be used in mass killing events. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, running for governor against the incumbent who signed the permitless carry bill into law, has not swayed from a campaign statement when he ran for president that claimed he would confiscate AR-15 weapons. His pledge of, “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15. We’re going to take your AK-47,” can either lift or destroy his hopes of beating Greg Abbott.
There is no doubt the Republican will try to hang that statement around Beto’s neck, even though O’Rourke’s hometown was the site of a massacre at a Walmart, perpetrated by a man who posted a hate crime manifesto on social media claiming he was trying to stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas. That incident seemed to make manifest the fears of border residents who resented former President Trump’s attempts to demonize immigrants. More than a few believe the killer was both motivated and inspired by Trump’s rhetoric. There also seems to be some of that same bile as a fuel for the actions of the high school student in Oxford, Michigan.
The availability of automatic and semi-automatic weapons has elevated the death counts in some of these incidents. Although there seems no logic for an average person to own such a weapon, there has been no real attempt of late to stop their sale and purchase. Laws have tried to restrict the number of shells in a cartridge and stop the sale of bump stocks, but guns that fire fast with light touch triggers are not hard to find and buy.
It’s probably almost quaint by now to talk about American history and guns. In fact, there would be no United States without the guns that won the West from the indigenous populations or saved the Union in the Civil War or stopped the spread of fascism in World War II or won the Revolution against the British. I do not believe anyone wants to end private ownership of guns. Hunting and sport shooting are American traditions, but there must be a way to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of the angry and the insane. How do you do that when there is no law to even require permits or training in Texas?
Here's a modest proposal: How about insurance? Maybe everyone who buys a gun should also be required to purchase insurance. Let the underwriters and the actuaries assess the buyer’s risk of misusing the weapon. They have always been pretty good a picking out high-risk automobile owners and drivers. My guess is they would turn background checks into a science and knock off the details in a few minutes. The more risk, the higher the premium to own your gun. Don’t pay your premium, you get warnings and then warrants for arrest. Let’s see if we can get the NRA to buy into that notion.
Other nations in the developed world have strict requirements. In Germany, a licensed gun owner must have liability insurance for up to a million Euros. An applicant for a license must also be at least 18 years old, have the necessary “reliability” and “personal aptitude,” demonstrate “specialized knowledge,” and prove a need for the weapon. The Germans even require a license for air guns that shoot BBs, starter pistols, flare guns, and anything that shoots blanks.
To acquire any of these permits, the application process costs about $540 USD. The Weapons Act of Germany also makes it illegal to possess any type of automatic or semi-automatic rifles. Any here’s an interesting detail: Anyone under the age of 25 who applies for a gun permit must show a “certificate of mental aptitude from a public health officer or licensed psychologist.” German gun laws are so specific they even detail how weapons are to be stored in a private residence.
No one expects rigorous protocols like those in Germany to catch on in Texas. But what do we do? Why is our first question always about defending gun rights instead of protecting children, who are now learning active shooter drills in schools much the way my generation was taught to hide under a pitiful Formica desk when an air raid siren went off. If these are the only moves we can make as a culture, we are almost certainly doomed. Guns seem to beget guns. Why they are protected more than life is a profoundly disturbing question Americans have yet to confront.
Luby’s rebuilt their cafeteria in Killeen and the day they reopened for business Kirk, and I returned for lunch. Our compulsion was to defy the horror that had filled that room and symbolically tell ourselves we would not be controlled by fear. But it is hard to ignore the risk in 2021 that is associated with even walking into a public space. How in the hell does anyone? Like some old West outlaw, I always sit with my back to the wall and facing the door and watch every soul that enters.
As for Suzanna Gratia Hupp, according to Wikipedia, she is raising horses with her husband out near Lampasas. I wonder if she thinks the relaxation of gun laws that went well beyond her initial proposals is good. There are always unintended consequences of every law. Or maybe she doesn’t think about it at all. But I sure do. In every restaurant where I eat, or store where I shop, or street where I walk, or plane when I fly, or hotel lobby where I lounge, I look around and every face has become suspicious to me. Weak gun laws means anybody could be packin’.
And might be the next George Hennard.