‘You have to be prepared’
A mile down the road, a heavily armed killer had just crashed his car after committing the worst mass shooting in the state’s history. Joel Robbins hopped in his car, where he keeps a loaded .38 revolver, and rushed to the scene.
His wife, Lynn Robbins, 63, didn’t blink.
“I don’t get nervous,” she said, taking a draw from her home-rolled cigarette, “because I know we could protect ourselves. Plus, I’ve got Joel, and he’s got the whole family’s back.”
Guns are life out here, some 30 miles east of San Antonio, and not just for personal protection. The First Baptist Church massacre in nearby Sutherland Springs reinforces the notion — commonly held in these parts — that the best way to stop a bad man with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Sunday’s slaughter killed 25 innocent people and an unborn child — roughly the equivalent of 4% of the town’s population. In a church. Women and children. Old folks. A preacher’s daughter. All at the hands of a deeply disturbed shooter with a mile-long record of reasons why he should’ve never possessed weapons, let alone an assault rifle.
Talk to rural Texans around here, though, and most will tell you the answer to America’s scourge of mass shootings is more guns, not fewer. If Stephen Willeford hadn’t been nearby with his own assault rifle, they say, the killer might have continued his deadly spree. It could have been much, much worse.
“There’s crazy people out there and you don’t know who they are,” Lynn Robbins said. “They look like me and you and Joe Schmo from Kokomo. They don’t glow in the dark. That’s why you have to be prepared.”
‘You don’t have guns where you’re from’
To call Sutherland Springs sleepy would be to understate it.
The reporters and satellite trucks that converged on the town after the shooting doubled the population and traffic in town, which boasts a post office, dollar store and a pair of gas stations.
Mobile and prefab homes — many with similar shades of siding — sit on sprawling lots around the First Baptist Church. A few are dilapidated and abandoned. Birdhouses, weather vanes and stars of Texas serve as yard ornaments. A homemade sign nailed to a utility pole offers “Quilts for Sale.”
Huge oaks squat along ragged, curbless roads that abut residents’ fenced-in lawns, where you might find roosters, an old Ford Mustang or a lazy dog. Several pups roam freely.
Kevin Langdon, 62, carries a jumbo box of dog biscuits in the back seat of his pickup truck. He freely hands them out to the pooches, Mama and Buddy, that hang out at the VP Racing gas station, about 500 feet from the church.
The retired welding instructor stops at the station every morning for coffee before heading off to work on his property down by Cibolo Creek. On Wednesday, he encountered a reporter from New York City. Langdon started up a conversation with her as a man in a blue jean jacket watched, waiting for fresh breakfast tacos.
“You don’t have guns where you’re from,” Langdon said, more telling than asking.
“No, we don’t,” she replied.
“But the criminals do,” Langdon said.
The reporter nodded. The man waiting on tacos walked off, shaking his head.
“Well, I feel sorry for y’all,” he said, making his way to the register.
Guns vs. shoes
As Langdon enjoyed his daily coffee, heavy on the cream, he pulled out a Bond Arms .410 double-barrel Derringer — a star of Texas on its grip — and laid its shells on a cafe table in full view of the cashier and patrons.
“You got critters,” he said. “That’s why Texans don’t pick bluebonnets down here.”
He’s already killed six rattlesnakes and two copperheads with the gun just this year, he said, showing off the leather cowboy boots he wears for protection.
Langdon has another gun in his pocket, a .380-caliber. At his home — a cabin he built himself out of reclaimed crates — he has dozens more.
Many are just “oddities,” he said, such as the .357 Mare’s Leg, a replica of actor Steve McQueen’s in “Wanted Dead or Alive.” There’s also the CZ pistol that his buddy’s dad took from a German officer during World War II and a 1969 police-issue .38 Special, his favorite revolver.
His wife of 43 years sometimes gives him a hard time about his collection.
“She says, ‘What’re you going to do with another gun?’ I say, ‘What’re you going to do with another pair of shoes?'”
One day, he’d like to acquire a gun from his favorite actor, Chuck Connors of “The Rifleman” fame, but it’ll be expensive.
“I’ll have to wait for the wife to get another Coach or Dooney & Bourke purse,” he said, a mischievous smile piercing his woolly beard.
Strong support for gun rights
In Wilson County, where the gunman opened fire on the church, and neighboring Guadalupe County, where the shooter died after a 10-mile car chase, almost 7 out of 10 voters cast their ballots for President Donald Trump.
It’s an important factor when weighing attitudes toward firearms in Texas, as Republicans feel more strongly about the value of guns than does the state at large.
A poll last month by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune found that 38% of Texans feel more guns make society safer, while slightly more than half support stricter gun control laws. Among Republicans, though, those numbers were 66% and 25%.
Langdon, a former Civil War re-enactor who grew up in northwest Ohio, suspects most city folks don’t understand rural America’s need for guns, including assault rifles. They don’t come across dangerous wildlife in places like Washington, D.C., he said.
“Well, they got a lot of snakes there,” he added, “but we call them Democrats.”
Gun control efforts worry him, he said, because police can take a while to respond in unincorporated areas like Sutherland Springs. That’s why he and the pastor at his church obtained concealed handgun licenses in 1999, after the Columbine school shooting in Colorado.
“There is no solution because mental illness is mental illness,” he said. “The best thing you can do is get everybody trained and make it part of the schooling that people learn safety first, and realize that nutcases are nutcases and you’ve got to deal with those people in a separate situation.”
Protection against ‘animals that can kill you’
Joel Robbins, 62, who rushed to the scene of the car crash after Sunday’s shooting, never came face-to-face with the gunman. When he arrived, police were already on the scene. They stopped him 60 or 70 yards from the crash. He backed into a driveway, tossed his .38 Smith & Wesson in the passenger seat and watched as officers approached the dead gunman’s car.
“It didn’t spook me. I was armed. I didn’t want the guy coming this way,” he said.
Robbins, who grew up around firearms and keeps a loaded shotgun leaning on the wall next to his bed, said that, before Sunday, he had a lot more to worry about than crazed gunmen.
Coyotes have killed two of his dogs and one of his family’s calves. There are three packs of them in the area, he said, and they’re so clever that when you hit them with a spotlight, they turn their backs so you can’t see the glint from their eyes.
As their daughter’s boyfriend sat in a deer blind on the family’s 88-acre property across the road, Lynn Robbins explained that a game camera recently captured about 15 wild boars traipsing across their land in a single night.
They recently trapped a 300-pound feral pig that filled a 4-foot-by-4-foot cage. Not only do the hogs pose a danger to humans, Joel Robbins said, but they dig up land looking for food, leaving ruts that can break a cow’s or horse’s leg.
A gun would be the only way to protect yourself if one of the beasts charged you, Joel Robbins said.
“It’s like a shovel or a post-hole digger. It’s just a tool,” he said.
In elementary school in the 1960s, Langdon saw firsthand how dangerous a hog can be. A farm hand slipped while corralling the animals, and a hog bit his calf off through his coveralls.
“And that was a domestic hog,” he said.
Today, the wild versions tear up his property near Sutherland Springs and steal his pecans. And that’s the least of his concerns. Recently, a mountain lion ate eight of his goats and two of his neighbor’s calves, dragging one of them — a 350-pounder — into a tree.
Langdon has no qualms carrying an AK-47 assault rifle as a means of protection.
“When you got animals that can kill you, how many shots do you want and how fast do you want to get them off?” he asked.
‘It’s not about laws’
At the Bexar Community Shooting Range in Marion, the closest range to Sutherland Springs, manager Alex McInnnis said more shooters have been dropping by this week — not because of Sunday’s violence, but because deer season began November 4.
The 40-year-old father of one, who’s worked at the range since he was 15, doesn’t foresee the church killings altering his customers’ feelings about their weapons.
A madman, not a gun, killed those churchgoers, and the shooter could’ve easily used household chemicals or an automobile, he said as the booms of shotgun blasts and cracks of assault rifles sounded in the distance.
“You’re not blaming a truck for what happened in New York,” he said of the Halloween terror attack in Manhattan in which a man in a rental truck mowed down bystanders on a bike path.
Down at the rifle range, men with spotting scopes and long guns — many of them assault rifles — were “sighting in,” or checking the accuracy of their weapons, on 50-, 100- and 200-yard targets.
Among them were John Hirst, 62, of Temple, and his son-in-law Joseph Sustayta, 38, of Cibolo, who were sighting in their AR-15s for an upcoming hunt. They’re looking forward to the bonding experience.
“The fellowship you have there, just the time spent out there in nature, it means a lot,” said Hirst, who is retired after 40 years in law enforcement.
Hirst has “put a lot of meat on the table with a rifle,” he said. He and Sustayta question why mass shootings always lead the country back to debates over gun laws.
The law didn’t prevent the Sutherland Springs shooter — despite a history of violence and mental instability — from procuring his weapons, so how would more laws help?
“It’s not about laws. You’re going to have to change the hearts of people, and only God can do that,” Hirst said.
Later, he nodded toward the AR-15s on the concrete table behind them: “They haven’t moved since we sit them here. Guns don’t kill people.”
Sustayta, who spent six years in the Army Reserve, said he and Hirst are 100% in favor of efforts to keep guns out of the hands of felons, the violent and the mentally ill — just like they approve of laws that keep those unfit for driving from getting behind the wheel. But he, too, doubts laws alone will alter human behavior.
“I think we can do better for sure. Can you stop it? I don’t think so,” said the father of three teenage daughters. “People have been killing people for as long as people have been around.”
If anything, the church massacre bolstered their belief that guns are a necessary part of life. Like so many here in rural Texas, they point to the fact that an armed Samaritan cut short Sunday’s killing spree.
“Seeing what happened, I feel more strongly,” Hirst said. “We need to have more people in this country who use guns.”
Grateful for ‘heroes with guns’
Back in Sutherland Springs, Cierra Sens, the daughter-in-law of Joel and Lynn Robbins, echoed that sentiment. The 26-year-old was sweeping outside the VP Racing gas station when the gunman began slaughtering parishioners.
Sens heard every shot but didn’t realize something was horribly amiss until ricochets began landing near the gas station.
Had Stephen Willeford not engaged the gunman with his own rifle, she fears, she could have been the next target.
“I thank God for the heroes with the guns,” she said. “Without them, I could be dead.”