An ongoing American tragedy
When I read about four adults and one child being killed last month in a shooting rampage in Cleveland, Texas, I just cringed.
We live in a society where gun violence has become commonplace. Mass shootings have become weekly occurrences. During the first 18 weeks of 2023, our nation experienced 20 shootings that have each taken the lives of at least four people.
The five killed in Cleveland were just ordinary folks, immigrants from Honduras. Their next-door neighbor was reportedly outside late firing his rifle into the sky. They asked if he could stop because the gunfire was keeping their baby awake.
It would seem a reasonable request. Instead, police say Francisco Oropeza, 39, took his AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle and killed five people, including an 8-year-old child.
The Washington Post reported three children survived the shooting. “Two of the women who were killed were found lying on top of the young children in a bedroom. ‘They were trying to protect the children,’” San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers told The Washington Post. “It’s horrific,” Capers said. “No one should ever have to look at this scene, the blood, the trauma that went on in that house.”
A massive manhunt ended May 2 when a law enforcement team found Oropeza in a closet hiding under some laundry. Brave fellow.
When I read that story, I couldn’t help but remember when I was in Cleveland, Texas, five years ago. Oddly enough, I was investigating a different murder.
When I was a young reporter, fresh out of graduate school, I covered a shooting at a day care center near Galveston, Texas. A man walked into the nursery with a gun and shot two teachers in front of two dozen screaming kids.
I covered his trial. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Thirty years later, I found myself in a state prison in Cleveland sitting across a table from him as he awaited his release. He tried to write-it off as a big misunderstanding. I have never had such a strong desire to slap someone I was interviewing.
I had spent the preceding days with the family of the teacher he killed, talking to the worker he shot three times but survived and listening to one of the children whose earliest memory was his act of violence.
After I finished the interview in the prison, I did what I always do when I visit a small town for the first time. I ate at the local diner, sat at the “community table” and learned about the town. Two cops sat across from me eating their breakfast.
When I told them why I was in town, they invited me back to their station and regaled me with stories of cases they had investigated over the years. After a few hours of listening, they took me to lunch at a Mexican restaurant. (Nothing is better than TexMex in small-town Texas.)
When I learned of the recent violence in Cleveland, I thought about the cops I met and wondered if they were working the case. I also thought about the killer I interviewed in the Cleveland prison.
He’s proof that this senseless gun violence is nothing new. It’s an ongoing American tragedy. I don’t like to write about gun rights because I don’t have much new to say.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that the Second Amendment gives Americans a right to own firearms. I’m a gunowner. I spend November and December weekends shivering in a deer blind with a gun on my lap.
But I’m the first to acknowledge that no constitutional right is an absolute. Freedom of speech doesn’t protect perjury. Freedom of the press doesn’t include child pornography. Free exercise of religion doesn’t cover human sacrifice.
When I reported on the daycare center shooting 35 years ago, I learned the killer had purchased a cheap handgun in a pawnshop shortly before the crime. In those days before the federal waiting period, he was able to leave the shop angry and fully armed.
I can’t help but wonder if a whole lot of heartache could have been avoided if he had had two days to cool off and wait to pick up his firearm like he would today. That’s an example of a gun control measure that has worked and saved lives.
I have never understood why some people feel the need to go outside and fire their gun into the air. According to the New York Times in many areas of rural Texas a person can stand in their front yard and fire a gun repeatedly and not violate so much as a village ordinance.
The night of the Cleveland massacre, Oropeza reportedly had been drinking alcohol, waving a rifle in his front yard and firing off bullets with his military-style rifle. His neighbors called the police five times to complain. Each time, a dispatcher told the callers the officers were on their way.
Such calls are a pretty-low priority, particularly when the complaint doesn’t involve someone violating a law.
After hours of hearing a crying baby kept awake by gunfire and finding the police unresponsive, the mother of the child walked next door to ask her neighbor to quiet it down. In the moments afterward, five people ended up dead.
It seems to me that Texas lawmakers ought to consider banning the recreational firing of guns in neighborhoods. And we don’t allow people to drink while driving cars, how about banning drinking and firing guns?
If some measures such as these had been on the books, police officers may have had a pretext to intervene and prevent the tragedy that ensued.
Scott Reeder a staff writer for the Illinois Times can be reached at [email protected].