For the second time in 13 months, Nashville woke up to the news of a deadly mass shooting that involved country music fans.
On Wednesday night, a gunman shot and killed 12 people inside Borderline Bar and Grill, a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., authorities said. Anywhere from eight to 15 patrons were also injured, according to Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean, who said the suspect’s motive is still unclear. One of the victims was Sgt. Ron Helus of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, who was killed when he entered the venue after responding to 911 calls.
The Los Angeles-area bar, near Pepperdine University and California Lutheran University, was hosting its weekly 18-and-older College Country Night, which offered line-dancing lessons. On its website, Borderline is described as “Ventura County’s largest country dance hall and live music venue . . . a haven for country line dancing folks of all ages.”
Reports soon emerged that some at Borderline had survived the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest festival in October 2017, when a gunman killed 58 and injured hundreds more in the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history.
“I was at the Las Vegas Route 91 mass shooting, as well as probably 50 or 60 others who were in the building at the same time as me tonight,” witness Nicholas Champion told CBS News. “It’s a big thing for us. We all are a big family, and unfortunately, this family got hit twice.”
David Anderson, a 23-year-old from Newbury Park, attended the Route 91 festival and was on the side of the stage closest to the Mandalay Bay hotel as the shooting began. When he spotted the gunman at Borderline, he knew exactly what was about to happen.
Anderson threw his female friend behind the bar and laid on top of her. After firing about 10 to 15 rounds, the shooter stopped; Anderson saw an opportunity, grabbed his friend and ran toward the patio.
Anderson said numerous Borderline regulars were also at Route 91 and would wear their “Vegas Strong” shirts to the bar.
“It was this country strong family that it was just a regular thing and we were there to have fun and have a good time,” he said. “It’s a place that you go to have fun and you make memories and this frickin’ ruined it, sadly.”
Country music prides itself on being the most accessible and familial genre, where superstars are expected to treat fans like friends. Many Nashville artists, several of whom previously performed at the venue, posted condolences on social media as soon as they saw the news on Thursday morning.
“Our hearts & prayers go out to the victims, their families, & Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks!” wrote Locash, the duo whose song “I Love This Life” accompanies the bar’s YouTube video promoting College Country Night. “We’ve played this venue, met the people who hang there & hurt for their loss.”
“So many of my friends and I have played this bar. How devastating. My thoughts and heartfelt prayers go out to the victims, their families and the Borderline staff,” Meghan Linsey tweeted.
“Sending prayers and love to everyone in Thousand Oaks, CA today. Absolutely heartbroken thinking of all those sweet souls just trying to listen and dance to country music,” wrote duo Maddie and Tae.
Condolences streamed in from singers all across the genre, including Loretta Lynn, Charlie Daniels, Zac Brown Band, Cassadee Pope and Morgan Wallen. John Rich, in New York City to promote his whiskey brand, announced he would stop doing publicity “so we can all focus on the situation at hand.” Kelsea Ballerini was scheduled to debut a new music video but wrote on Instagram, “out of respect, we are postponing the release.”
“Though broken, my heart is with these families and friends in Thousand Oaks today,” tweeted Brad Paisley.
Next Wednesday, Paisley and Carrie Underwood will host the Country Music Association Awards on ABC, the format’s biggest night in the national spotlight. Last year, the Las Vegas shooting occurred a month before the CMAs. It was uncomfortable timing for some in the genre, suddenly linked to the contentious issue of gun control — in a town where artists are encouraged to keep their political beliefs silent, so as not to alienate fans.
The pressure grew so intense that days before the show, the CMAs told reporters that their credentials could be revoked if they asked about guns or politics on the red carpet. After much criticism (including from Paisley, who proclaimed the media guidelines “ridiculous and unfair”), the CMAs apologized and rescinded the ban. It was a stark reminder of how much people in the industry dislike discussing current events.
“The issue as a country artist is you feel like if you say something wrong, your audience is going to turn on you,” Bobby Bones, the syndicated country morning radio host, told The Washington Post last year. “And their publicists have all said, ‘Don’t talk about it. Just don’t talk about it.’ ”
Any statement related to guns is considered controversial, as the National Rifle Association has close ties to the industry. But earlier this year, after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Rolling Stone reported that NRA Country, the “lifestyle arm” of the NRA, revamped its website and removed all country singers previously affiliated with the brand.
And in the past year, a few country artists have become more open about their beliefs. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill called for stricter gun control. Maryland natives Brothers Osborne played a Democratic fundraiser for Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean. In a Rolling Stone cover story, Eric Church, a headliner at the Route 91 Harvest festival, said he knew he would get backlash for criticizing the NRA, and he didn’t care. “I blame the lobbyists. And the biggest in the gun world is the NRA,” he said.
On Thursday, in the wake of the Thousand Oaks shooting, most country singers offered their sympathies and prayers without mentioning anything political — except for a few who have already been outspoken. Margo Price posted a photo of herself wearing a pin that said “We can end gun violence.”
Roseanne Cash, who wrote an op-ed last year calling for country singers to “stand up” to the NRA, also weighed in. “12 killed, including the ‘good guy with a gun’, plus survivors of Las Vegas shooting,” she tweeted. “We can’t go on like this. I don’t want to hear about thoughts and prayers. I want #GunControlNow.”
Katie Zezima in Thousand Oaks, Calif., contributed to this report.