The United States was in mourning Sunday for victims of two mass shootings that killed 29 people in less than 24 hours as debate raged over whether President Donald Trump’s rhetoric was partly to blame for surging gun violence.
The rampages turned innocent snippets of everyday life into nightmares of bloodshed: 20 people shot dead while shopping at a crowded Walmart in El Paso, Texas on Saturday morning, and nine more outside a bar in a popular nightlife district in Dayton, Ohio just 13 hours later.
In Texas another 26 people were wounded, and 27 in Ohio. In Dayton, the shooter, armed with a long gun, was killed by police in less than a minute. They just happened to be nearby and prevented a casualty toll that could have been many times greater, local officials said.
Still, in those few seconds the shooter managed to mow down dozens of people.
“You could see the bodies actually start to fall and we knew it was bigger than just even a shoot-out,” Anthony Reynolds, who was outside the Dayton bar when the shooting started, told NBC News.
Reynolds described the shooter as a white man dressed all in black, with his face covered and armed with an assault rifle.
Police later blamed the gunman as a 24-year-old white man called Connor Betts and said that his sister was among those killed.
In Texas, a suspect surrendered shortly after the massacre and was described in media reports as a 21-year-old white man named Patrick Crusius who was believed to have posted online a manifesto denouncing a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas. El Paso, on the border with Mexico, is majority Latino.
– Shooter ‘very confident’ –
The manifesto posted shortly before the shooting started also praises the killing of 51 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March and the person who wrote it indicated they expected to die in the shooting.
Prosecutors in Texas said they would seek the death penalty, and a federal official said that investigators are treating the El Paso shooting as a case of domestic terrorism.
As the country stood aghast over its latest spasm of gun violence, Trump ordered flags flown at half mast for five days.
At the Walmart, terrified shoppers cowered in aisles or ran out of the store as gunfire echoed.
Vanessa Saenz, a Walmart shopper, said the El Paso shooter was wearing a black T-shirt, cargo pants and ear protectors. She said it looked like he was “dancing.”
People near the shooter became cornered, and Saenz said she recalls him raising his rifle, aiming at them and shooting.
“The one thing I’ll never forget is the way he walked into Walmart, very confident. He was on a mission and that’s when it hit me,” Saenz told ABC News Radio.
These were the 250th and 251st mass shootings this year in the US, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an NGO. It defines mass shooting as an incident in which at least four people are wounded or killed in a shooting.
The two shootings ended a particularly tragic week for gun violence in America: three people died in a shooting at a food festival last Sunday in California, and two more died Tuesday at a shooting in a Walmart in Mississippi.
On Twitter Trump described the El Paso attack as “an act of cowardice.” On Sunday morning he tweeted again saying “God bless the people of El Paso Texas. God bless the people of Dayton, Ohio.”
But critics hit hard at Trump, saying his custom of speaking in derogatory terms about immigrants is pushing hatred of foreigners into the political mainstream and encouraging white supremacist thinking that encourages violence.
“To pretend that his administration and the hateful rhetoric it spreads doesn’t play a role in the kind of violence that we saw yesterday in El Paso is ignorant at best and irresponsible at worst,” said the Southern Poverty Law Center, a major civil rights group.
It cited Trump actions like calling Mexican migrants rapists and drug dealers and doing nothing when a crowd at a Trump rally chanted “send her back” in reference to a Somali-born congresswoman.
The Republican mayor of El Paso seemed to discount any race element to the Texas shooting, saying the gunman was disturbed.
“He was deranged, he was evil… Pure evil as far as I can characterize it,” Dee Margo told Fox News.
Trump’s chief of staff, Nick Mulvaney, echoed this saying both shooters were sick people and “no politician is to blame for that.”
“This cancer, this difficulty that we face as a nation predates this administration by many, many years,” Mulvaney told ABC News.
But at least two Democratic presidential hopefuls said Trump bears some of the blame for violence like this.
Beto O’Rourke, who lives in El Paso and used to represent Texas in Congress, said there is now an environment of open racism in the US.
“And we see it from our commander-in-chief. He is encouraging this,” O’Rourke told CNN. “He doesn’t just tolerate it, he encourages it, calling immigrants rapists and criminals and seeking to ban all people of one religion. Folks are responding to this.”