Capitol Alert

In a grieving city, where talk of terrorism and guns falls flat

A hymn for Orlando from San Bernardino

More than six months after the San Bernardino attack, a memorial of flowers, stuffed animals, American flags and hand-painted signs still stands at an intersection near the Inland Regional Center. Now residents are also praying - and singing - for
Up Next
More than six months after the San Bernardino attack, a memorial of flowers, stuffed animals, American flags and hand-painted signs still stands at an intersection near the Inland Regional Center. Now residents are also praying - and singing - for

In the days following the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., Donald Trump renewed his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States. Hillary Clinton rebuked him. The U.S. Senate took up – and rejected – a set of gun control measures, and Democrats staged a chaotic sit-in on the House floor.

In San Bernardino, a roomful of Rotarians prayed.

“We know that right here, across the street in December, we had our own attack,” Rudy Westervelt, a district governor of the service group, said as several dozen business and community leaders bowed their heads over lunch at a golf course here.

He asked for “strength to overcome these things.”

In San Bernardino, where 14 people were killed last year in a rampage at a social services center, the Pulse nightclub shooting – and the political fallout – arrived as an echo.

Before President Barack Obama’s visit to Orlando, where a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub, this city heard the president once again lament a pattern of mass shootings in America. Following each attack, Democrats heightened their appeals for stricter gun controls, while Republicans blamed the administration for its response to terrorist groups abroad.

Yet the experience of San Bernardino has laid bare a shortcoming of political overtures in an election year – a disconnect not only between politics and a community’s grief, but also its fear that averting catastrophe will require more than any policy can provide.

“Some of the prevention is knowing our neighbors and knowing each other,” Westervelt said. “It’s not political.”

While Washington, D.C., flared last week, the reaction here hewed less to “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore’s politically charged documentary, than Robert Putnam’s bleak account of deteriorating social ties in America, “Bowling Alone.”

In Southern California’s Inland Empire, beleaguered by poverty, crime and the effects of San Bernardino’s municipal bankruptcy, politics “gets frustrating so quick,” Juan Espinosa, a 21-year-old student, said at a gay club in Riverside one recent afternoon.

Seated beneath paintings of nude men and women and music videos playing on 14 screens, Espinosa said he fears that even if gun control measures he supports are enacted, they would only enrage gun advocates. He filled his cup from a pitcher of Bud Light, sipped and calculated which person – the bartender, a visitor or him – would die first if a gunman came through the front door.

“I try to be optimistic,” he said.

No matter what you do, there are always crazy people.

Amanda Knudson, a 29-year-old dietician from Redlands

Few issues in America are as partisan as gun control, and the San Bernardino attack did little to change attitudes about the subject in California. According to a January Field Poll, 57 percent of voters in this heavily Democratic state say it is more important to impose greater controls on gun ownership than to protect the right to own guns, a finding in line with polls going back to 1999.

A smaller majority – 54 percent – say stricter gun controls could be at least somewhat effective at reducing violent crime, according to the poll. But 71 percent of California voters think it is at least somewhat likely another terrorist attack will occur in California in the near future, and only one in five voters are very confident in the ability of law enforcement agencies to break up terrorist plots.

“There’s really no perfect ideal,” said Amanda Knudson, a 29-year-old dietitian who bowls at an alley near the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. “No matter what you do, there are always crazy people.”

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, compared the public’s response to gun control proposals to the rigidity of lines drawn on climate change or Obama’s federal health care overhaul.

“No matter what new information you bring to the table, it doesn’t seem to change public attitudes,” DiCamillo said. “As soon as you raise the topic, people’s partisanship really dominates.”

At a prayer service last week at Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ in Ontario, about 25 miles west of San Bernardino, the Rev. Sylvia Lee Mann asked, “How do we respond to this killer?”

A woman in the third row of the century-old sanctuary cried, and the reverend said, “By loving each other, by dancing again.”

Death is certain, life is a cycle. If we do the good thing, tranquillity and peace will come of it.

Suldan Ahmad, of Downey

Then congregants lit candles, and one of them, Virginia Shannon, 77, said she was “just thinking that I have to have a candle and meditate every time I’m faced with Trump.”

In a speech on June 13, one day after the shooting in Orlando, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee told a crowd at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire that “Hillary Clinton can never claim to be a friend of the gay community as long as she continues to support immigration policies that bring Islamic extremists to our country.”

The shooter, Omar Mateen, was born in New York to parents from Afghanistan, but Trump said he was only in the country “because we allowed his family to come here.”

Clinton, speaking in Cleveland the same day, warned against “inflammatory, anti-Muslim rhetoric” in the wake of the attack.

“Threatening to ban the families and friends of Muslim Americans, as well as millions of Muslim businesspeople and tourists from entering our country, hurts the vast majority of Muslims who love freedom and hate terror,” said Clinton, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee.

In the parking lot of the Dar Al Uloom Al Islamiyah of America mosque in San Bernardino, where one of the shooters in that city, Syed Rizwan Farook, once prayed, Suldan Ahmad recalled that a mosque in Coachella, 80 miles southeast of San Bernardino, was set ablaze following the attack. For his beard and dress, he said, passers-by have occasionally called him a “terrorist” since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

But Ahmad, a retired food distributor, said many non-Muslims have reacted warmly to him, too, including one man who asked to join him in prayer several years ago at a gas station outside of Bakersfield.

Ahmad, 65, chewed on a stick and searched the trunk of his Toyota Camry for a tool to salvage a piece of metal from a desk in a nearby dumpster. He said he does not worry about Trump’s proposals or about the presidential election, comparing his life to a cellphone, his death the battery running out.

“Death is certain, life is a cycle,” Ahmad said. “If we do the good thing, tranquillity and peace will come of it.”

More than six months after the San Bernardino attack, a memorial of flowers, stuffed animals, American flags and hand-painted signs still stands at an intersection near the Inland Regional Center.

Cutouts of stars are hung from trees, alongside a white cross and a sign: “Always in our hearts.”

In a vacant lot facing the memorial, Republican Paul Chabot, a military veteran campaigning to unseat Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands, has placed a sign of his own, with his name and the admonition: “Counter terrorism.”

One of Chabot’s college fraternity brothers, Michael Wetzel, was among those killed at the Inland Regional Center, and Chabot is convinced of national security’s salience in the upcoming election.

The Obama administration’s policies abroad, he said, “are just very frustrating.”

Who has the answer? It certainly isn’t the political leaders.

Judith Valles, former mayor of San Bernardino

“What happened in Orlando would never have happened if there wasn’t such a worldwide growth of terrorism,” Chabot said. “I think it’s the lack of, the lack of a nation that has a resolve to fight evil as we did to defeat the Nazis.”

He said he fears that after a series of mass shootings, “We are almost becoming numb now to massive attacks.”

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said one change evident in the aftermath of Orlando is that some Republican lawmakers have “invested a lot more time and energy into promoting their own alternatives than they have in the past.” This includes proposals by Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa involving background checks and the availability of guns to people on terror watch lists. Still, the measures were among Senate proposals that failed amid overwhelming Republican opposition.

“The more frequent these tragedies occur, the harder the lines of disagreement seem to become,” Schnur said. “I don’t know anyone on either side of this debate who’s eager to see more mass shootings, but people on both sides of this agreement have very different ideas on how to proceed.”

Jonathan Ingram, a Murrieta councilman and vice president of the Republican Party of Riverside County, said he became “flabbergasted” while listening to an Obama speech on the radio after the Orlando attack, leading him to post a blistering critique on Facebook of Obama’s foreign policy record and gun control proposals.

“We’re at a point where we’re allowing this type of stuff to metastasize, and it’s like a cancer,” he said.

Yet Ingram said he supports tightening background checks and prohibiting gun purchases for people who are on terror watch lists or suffer from mental illnesses. He was pained by what he called “knee-jerk reactions … from all sides of the aisle.”

Early in the Republican primary, Trump benefited in public opinion polls from his focus on immigration and terrorism following the attack in San Bernardino and, before that, Paris. California is so reliably Democratic that his proposals are unpopular here, and he is unlikely to seriously compete with Clinton in the state.

But in the Inland Empire, one of California’s more conservative areas, the New York businessman enjoys a following.

At Dave’s Gun & Archery in San Bernardino, novelty Trump bills are taped to a display case and a salesman, Mike End, said that “for us, gun-wise, everybody’s for Trump.”

Of Clinton, a customer who declined to give his name said, “I’d like to see them hang her out in the range out there.”

End said there was no uptick in gun sales following the San Bernardino attack, but more people sought training. Among them was Amber Carlson, a student from Grand Terrace who hoped to practice on a Smith & Wesson 500, a revolver so powerful it can take down big game.

Carlson, 25, said she started worrying about defending herself after the attack in San Bernardino.

“That was really close to home,” she said.

At the golf course in San Bernardino, Dale Marsden, superintendent of the San Bernardino City Unified School District, said the Orlando attack was a “reminder these events can happen anytime and anywhere.”

But over iced tea and a buffet lunch at the Rotary luncheon, talk turned quickly to job training and literacy programs. Marsden said developing better technological and cybersecurity measures could help avert future terrorist attacks. A more fundamental charge, he said, is to “talk with each other and learn from each other.”

Former San Bernardino Mayor Judith Valles, who favors stricter gun control measures, said that when Republicans point out that criminals will get guns anyway, “You can’t argue with that. They’re right.”

“There’s got to be a lot of introspection in the world about what we are doing to each other,” she said. “I don’t have an answer.”

Before leaving the clubhouse at the golf course, Valles turned and added, “Who has the answer? It certainly isn’t the political leaders.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

Where they stand

On gun control

Hillary Clinton

  • Would seek to tighten regulations on gun show and internet gun sales and to prevent domestic abusers from possessing firearms.
  • Supports repealing a 2005 law that prevents gun manufacturers and dealers in certain cases from being sued.
  • Supports increasing restrictions on gun purchases by people on terror watch lists. “If you are too dangerous to get on a plane,” she said, “you are too dangerous to buy a gun.”

Donald Trump

  • Supports Second Amendment rights that he said in a position paper “shall not be infringed upon. Period.”
  • Would focus attention on crime suppression and mental health programs to reduce gun violence, while seeking to improve existing systems of background checks.
  • Calls gun and magazine bans a “total failure,” saying “law-abiding people should be allowed to own the firearm of their choice.”

On national security

Hillary Clinton

  • Has called for a commission to examine military spending.
  • Says she would “strengthen alliances and nurture new relationships to tackle shared challenges such as climate change, cyberthreats, and highly contagious diseases.”

Donald Trump

  • Says he can build a stronger military for less by avoiding expensive weapons systems purchased because “the company that makes the missiles is a contributor.”
  • Would temporarily prevent all Muslims from entering the United States.
  • Would return to the Middle East Syrian refugees accepted by the Obama administration.