“Gun control means using both hands in my land” – De la Soul “Stakes is High”
In November 2006, Sommer Isdale became Miss Texan Teen USA for 2007. She won a four-year college scholarship, some jewellery, and the chance to compete in Miss Teen USA 2007 (she lost. Miss Colorado, Hilary Cruz, picked up the crown, while Miss South Carolina captured the zeitgeist with her remarkable Educating America speech). In July, Sommer Isdale will turn 21.
Isdale is busty, tanned and young. Her publicity photos are all-American sexy—an airbrushed cheerleader, offering suggestions of both virility and innocence. For many male Americans, that questionable tension is the stuff of fantasy. To look at Isdale is to appreciate a sweet and guileless apparition of America’s sexual advances, or, as is the preferred view of one of those on the pageant’s discussion board, a girl that is simply “breathtaking”.
It’s fortunate that Isdale even participated—the beauty queen is a survivor of the 1991 Luby’s massacre, which was, prior to the Virginia Tech. shootings, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history: 24 dead, including the suicided gunman. Sommer Isdale was then three-months-old.
Isdale’s hometown is Harker Heights, Texas—the nearby town of Waco would experience its own mythic criminality just two years after Isdale’s birth, when David Koresh fought it out with the ATF and the FBI. Luby’s, though, was a different tragedy.
Around lunchtime on October 17, 1991, George Hennard drove his 1987 Ford Ranger through the front window of the popular Luby’s cafeteria, in Killeen, Texas. He climbed out of the cabin, crouched behind the vehicle, and began to unload his two semi-automatic pistols—a Glock-17 and a Ruger P-89—into the customers.
There were a few there. Hennard had picked National Bosses Day to go berserk, and so the restaurant was filled with some 80 customers, many of them employees who had taken out their superiors for lunch. Hennard quickly abandoned his secured position and began roaming the restaurant. “He had tons of ammo on him,” said one survivor, “and he was firing at anyone he could”. Another witness, Lee Whitney, spoke later that evening of the gunman talking to his victims: “As he approached people, he would say, ‘Was it all worth it?'”.
A few months before the massacre Hennard, 35, had sent a letter to his neighbours—Jana Jernigan, Jill Fritz, and their mother, Jane Bugg. The letter was posted from Henderson, Nevada, where his parents lived. The letter—rambling, poisonous—moved the recipients to make a copy, and to hand the original to the police. The copy was made available to the press when news of the massacre spread. A segment read: “Please give me the satisfaction of someday laughing in the face of all those mostly white treacherous female vipers from those two towns who tried to destroy me and my family”.
The evening after the slaughter Police Chief Roy Kneese denied that the police should have acted on that letter: “There was nothing we could file charges on him for. There was nothing in that letter. It seemed he had a crush on the girls”.
During the rampage Hennard paused momentarily to reload, and a customer took the opportunity to throw a chair through a window, creating an escape route. It was how Sommer, carried by her parents, got out, securing her beauty crown 16 years later. Betty May, then 67, escaped through the window too. “I didn’t know I could run, but I did today”.
Two doors down from Luby’s was a hotel, where five law enforcement officials were holding a class for local police officers. On hearing the shooting they rushed to the cafeteria, and began exchanging shots with Hennard. It is believed Hennard was first wounded by police fire, before retreating to the back of the restaurant and ending it with a shot to the head.
Michael Cox, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, inspected the scene afterwards: “You have to push yourself and remind yourself that it’s not a movie scene. There’s that terrible stillness of death”. There was very little stillness in that year’s highest-grossing movie in the United States: Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Suzanna Hupp survived that day too. Like Sommer Isdale, she escaped through the broken window, securing a very different future to the beauty queen. Hupp was a local chiropractor at the time of Hennard’s rampage. On the 17th she had arranged to meet her parents, Ursula (67) and Al Gratia (71) for lunch, and, in accordance with Texan law prohibiting concealed handguns, left hers in her car’s glove compartment before entering the cafe. Hupp knew another customer there that day—Sid Isdale, another chiropractor, and the grandfather of Sommer.
When Hennard began shooting, Hupp’s father attempted to wrestle him. It’s unsure from where Al Gratia’s strength came, or if it was just a blinding impulse, but it is breathtaking to think on it: an unarmed 71-year-old rushing a crazed gunman. For that he was shot fatally in the chest. Suzanna reached instinctively for her gun that wasn’t there, and so she watched helplessly as Hennard shot dead her mother, and, now an orphan, fled through the broken glass.
In 1995 Hupp ran as a Republican for District 54, in the Texas House of Representatives. She won, despite the District being traditionally Democratic, and very quickly established herself as one of America’s most vocal defenders of the Second Amendment. The same year, Hupp sponsored a concealed gun bill intended to overturn former Texan Governor Anne Richard’s anti-gun law. The bill was successful, and was signed off by then Texan Governor George W. Bush. Texans could now carry concealed handguns.
As media copy, Hupp’s story is a good one. It contains such a solid hook: “what would I/could I have done that day in Luby’s?”. But as a personal tragedy that hook is the very point on which Hupp’s personal struggle, or potential collapse, are strung. As spectators, we are asked only to hypothetically locate ourselves in the situation, a kind of virtual reality for the water-cooler, but for Hupp, the awful uselessness of that self-reflection was potentially catastrophic.
To her immense credit, Hupp didn’t buckle. Rather, she responded to her impotence to stop Hennard that day by building a successful political career, eventually overturning the law Hupp believed prevented her from saving her parents. It seems to me that Hupp’s struggle is not only understandable, but courageous. It also has its problems.
Part 2 soon…