But for all the questions about guns swirling around the tragedy, there is one thing that was not in doubt. In a state where the modern era of mass shootings began with Charles Whitman’s 1966 rampage at the University of Texas clock tower, guns remain an inseparable part of the Texas DNA.
“I think that Texans have a history of taking care of themselves, a history of responsibility and freedom at the same time,” said Mike Sullivan, a former member of the Houston City Council who said he was considering bringing a concealed firearm to church on Sundays following the attack in Sutherland Springs. “There is no wrong place to carry a gun any more.”
Mr. Willeford, who lives near the church, emerged as a distinctly Texan hero in the tragedy. In an interview with KHBS television, he said his daughter heard gunshots and alerted him. He picked up his rifle and went to the church.
“Every time I heard a shot, I knew that probably represented a life,’’ he said in the interview. “I was scared to death, I was. I was scared for me and I was scared for every one of them. And I was scared for my own family that lived less than a block away.”
He added: “I just wish I could have gotten there faster. But I didn’t know, I didn’t know what was happening.’’
At a photo-op in Austin months ago, Gov. Greg Abbott fired a pistol at a gun range, and then turned to his 20-year-old daughter, who fired off some rounds with the same gun. People routinely show up at demonstrations with their bullhorns, their bottles of water and their rifles, because in Texas it is legal to carry a rifle slung over a shoulder in public. The state’s campus-carry law, which allowed licensed Texans to carry concealed handguns on college campuses, took effect on Aug. 1, 2016, the 50th anniversary of the Whitman tower attack.
More than 1 million men and women in Texas have active licenses to carry handguns. Only Florida, with 1.7 million as of May 2016, had more licensees than Texas.
One pastor in Beaumont, the Rev. James McAbee, was known for keeping a loaded .45-caliber pistol beneath the podium at his New Horizons Church. Mr. Patterson, the former state senator, often carried a gun in his boot in Austin when he served as the Texas land commissioner, and he saw no difference in carrying at a place of business or a place of worship.
“Frankly, if the church chose to prohibit lawful carry, as churches can do in Texas, I’d probably go to a more welcoming church,” said Mr. Patterson, who attends a Lutheran church in Austin.
The Rev. Stephen Curry, pastor of the La Vernia United Methodist Church, seven miles from First Baptist, said he has no doubt that some of those who gather at his church on Sundays are carrying concealed handguns. “I know they do,” Mr. Curry said. “It’s not unusual in this part of the country. Most of them are very discreet about it.”
Even being so close to the shooting on Sunday — one of the members of his church lost a relative at First Baptist — Mr. Curry said he saw the attack and guns as two separate issues.
“I don’t blame objects for the good or the evil that people do with them,” Mr. Curry said. “Objects are not the problem. The problem is the evil that lurks in the human heart. Yes, the perpetrator used a gun, but he was stopped by a man with a gun.”
Fredda Connally and her husband live about three-quarters of a mile from the church in Sutherland Springs, and have attended First Baptist off and on through the years. Her husband had not previously carried his gun to church, but probably will do so in the future because of the shooting.
“I think we’re both going to,” she said. “I didn’t want any part of it, but I feel like maybe we need to. It’s terrible.”
At the Valero gas station across from the church, Lorenzo Flores Jr. was still in shock. A family friend, Joann Ward, was killed in the attack. Mr. Flores, 56, who runs a food stand inside the gas station, said guns were fairly common in Sutherland Springs.
“We see guys with guns and rifles all the time, but we know each other,” said Mr. Flores, who is a gun owner himself. “Why should you or I not be able to protect ourselves or protect our families?”
And yet, even in a gun-friendly state like Texas, Mr. Flores said he supported more gun restrictions following the attack, to make sure that veterans like Mr. Kelley who were discharged from the military after criminal convictions do not have access to guns.
“If a man has a good mind and can pass a test and hasn’t been ejected from the military or anything, I’m all for that,” he said. “But if you’ve failed the test or you’ve failed the country by being discharged, you shouldn’t have the right to carry.”
Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said on Fox News on Sunday that churches should consider hiring “professional security, or at least arming some of the parishioners or the congregation, so that they can respond.”
The Texas Democratic Party called for Mr. Paxton to apologize. “Something is woefully wrong when elected officials wring their hands and suggest we can only stay safe by bringing arsenals to church,” Manny Garcia, the party’s deputy executive director, said in a statement. And statistics show that rather than making people safer, the states where it is easiest to get guns tend to have to most gun deaths.
Few in Texas seem persuaded.
“You can’t stop every incident,” said Homer Flores, 59, who lives in a Houston suburb and has had a handgun license for more than 20 years. “What if the ushers at that church had been carrying a firearm concealed, and this guy started opening up? He may have only gotten off a few rounds before they dropped him.’’
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