Mass shooting anniversary overshadowed in Texas Senate race

FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2017, file photo, a memorial for the victims of the shooting at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church is shown and includes 26 white chairs, each painted with a cross and and rose, and is displayed in the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The anniversary of the deadliest church shooting in the nation's history _ when a gunman killed 25 people in the rural church near San Antonio _ is the day before the Texas Senate election between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and rising Democratic star Beto O'Rourke. But you wouldn't know it spending time with either campaign. That massacre in Sutherland Springs, and another Texas mass shooting at Santa Fe High School near Houston about six months later, aren't the race's top issues. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The one-year anniversary of a Texas church shooting that was the deadliest in U.S. history falls on the eve of next week’s midterm deciding the state’s hotly contested race between Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.

Yet the candidates seldom reference the tragedy on the campaign trail.

A gunman with an AR-15 style rifle rampaged through a rural church outside San Antonio on Nov. 5, 2017, killing 25 people. That massacre and another mass shooting that left 10 dead about six months later at a high school near Houston hardly ever come up in the Texas race, even amid a spirited debate about gun control.

“It’s considered old news. Mass shootings aren’t like the big thing anymore,” said Diana Earl, a volunteer activist for the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America whose 22-year-old son, Dedrick, was shot and killed in 2016, following an argument over burnt ashes landing on the shooter’s car. “We’ve failed to keep it as a priority.”

Cruz frequently criticizes his opponent as being anti-Second Amendment, and O’Rourke argues that Texas should lead national discussions on assault weapons bans and universal background checks. But such debate almost seems independent of the tragedies rather than driven by them.

A dispute with his mother-in-law prompted Devin Patrick Kelley to open fire during Sunday services at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. Authorities put the official death toll at 26 because one of the victims was pregnant. More than half those killed were children.

Other attacks struck deeper political chords. Student activism following February’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida prompted Republican Gov. Rick Scott to sign legislation raising the age limit to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 and imposing a three-day waiting period on rifle purchases. However, the Republican running to replace Scott, former Rep. Ron DeSantis, says he would have vetoed those.

Last week’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh has laid bare fresh political divides, but more attention has been focused on whether President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric helped stoke hatred that encouraged violence than gun control.

Asked if the synagogue attack would spark renewed calls for gun control, Cruz mentioned the Sutherland Springs anniversary saying, “Sadly, Texas has experience of our own with violence and murder in places of worship.” But he used it to argue for a different policy response.

“Every American ought to be free to worship according to your faith, your conscience, free of some lunatic trying to harm you, some lunatic trying to murder you,” Cruz told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “We need to do much more to get murders off the street before they commit murder to make sure that bad guys, that felons and fugitives, that they don’t have access to firearms.”

O’Rourke often draws applause when he mentions not taking donations from the National Rifle Association, or any outside political group, and for suggesting that Texas should be a gun control trailblazer.

“Tell me a state that has a prouder, longer, richer heritage of responsible gun ownership,” he said during a town hall in Houston. “What better state, then, to lead the national conversation on how we protect more lives?”

Still, the Democratic challenger doesn’t mention Sutherland Springs much so close to election. In an online essay just after the attack, he wrote, “our country has decided to meet these acts of terror and mass murder as though they were natural disasters.”

“Collectively we conclude: this kind of thing just happens in our country. Just hope it doesn’t happen to us,” he added then, while calling for universal background checks, better access to mental health care and limits on guns “designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible.”

Earl, who has attended dozens of O’Rourke town halls and introduced him at an event this fall, said the Democrat is on the right track but “he needs to talk about it more and the Republicans really need to talk about it more.”

“Having your Second Amendment right, everyone supports that,” she said. “But what we need to talk about is stopping gun violence.”

A congressman giving up his El Paso-based seat, O’Rourke has visited all 254 Texas counties, drawing larger-than-expected crowds even in deeply conservative areas while shattering Senate campaign fundraising records. Still, it has been 30 years since Texas sent a Democrat to the Senate, and Cruz says O’Rourke’s values are too liberal for him to break that streak.

O’Rourke counters that Texas is changing, vowing to upset Cruz on the strength of voters who not only want the state to be a national model for gun control but also on relaxed federal immigration policies.

“I don’t know where those issues fall on the political spectrum, but they’re important to just about every single Texan that I’ve met,” O’Rourke told the AP during an interview. “That’s what I hear from Texas.”

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