The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Angry and fearful, Americans struggle to talk about guns and race

A constituent yells at Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) during a town hall meeting last week in Waterloo, Neb. (Rachel Mummey for The Washington Post)

OMAHA — The room was packed with Rep. Don Bacon’s constituents, half of whom had come to cheer him on for his staunch defense of the Second Amendment and President Trump. The rest glared at him silently.

Four days had passed since gunmen in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, killed 31 people, another bloody stretch that left Americans feeling helpless, confused, angry and scared.

“We’ve got a problem in our country with hate, and we’ve really got to reflect,” the Nebraska Republican told the crowd of about 100 at his town hall here. An additional 200 people were turned away because the room was at capacity.

In many ways, Bacon’s district is representative of the nation. It’s multiracial, split almost evenly among Democrats and Republicans and grimly familiar with mass shootings. In 2007, a teenager killed eight people here when he opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle at a Von Maur department store, an attack that briefly grabbed the nation’s attention before fading from memory, like so many other mass killings.

Those gathered at Bacon’s town hall, like Americans around the country, wanted to address the tough problems laid bare by the recent shootings: guns, mental illness, racism and the gridlocked state of the nation’s politics. But the debate seemed stuck. Attendees were skeptical of each other’s motives, blind to each other’s needs and unsure how to start a productive conversation.

To keep order and ensure a civil discussion, Bacon asked his constituents to write their questions on a piece of paper and drop them in a plastic bin from which the local fire chief would randomly select them. The solutions to the country’s gun massacre problem, Bacon said, begin with calm, respectful exchanges.

The fire chief read the first question: “Will you support a ban on assault weapons . . . and will you denounce Trump’s racist rhetoric?”

Bacon responded that a ban would punish too many law-abiding citizens, and he didn’t think it was helpful to call Trump, whom he is endorsing for 2020, a racist.

“It triples and quadruples down on the nastiness,” he said. “That’s not what we want. That’s not healthy.”

“We need more civility!” yelled a man in a “Make America Great Again” hat.

“I agree,” Bacon replied.

As his environment changed, suspect in El Paso shooting learned to hate

Sitting in the fifth row, Velvet Langley, 41, the only African American woman in the room, was boiling. She had submitted a written question but decided that it couldn’t wait.

“As someone with brown skin, how are you going to protect me?” she asked. “If you are saying he’s not a racist, how are you going to protect someone like me in our state, who is a law-abiding citizen?”

“You deserve to be protected,” Bacon said. “We need to raise the level of how we communicate.”

Langley glared, her arms folded across her chest.

“Well, you should talk to the president and get him to stop saying hateful things, and then I wouldn’t be scared in my own state,” Langley replied.

And so it went for more than an hour: Republicans were concerned about an overreaching government that was going to take away firearms. Democrats demanded that Bacon condemn the president as racist, push for stronger background checks on firearm purchases and ban assault weapons. There was plenty of civility but little left to say.

The fire chief plucked another question.

“This question has already been discussed, but it’s about assault weapons bans.”

He dug for another.

“We’ve already had this one, too. It’s about Trump and racism.”

Among those who didn’t make it into the at-capacity room was Megan Gentrup, the volunteer state director for Moms Demand Action, a national gun-control group with about 1,000 members in the state. She waited in the parking lot with about a dozen other women from her group, hoping to catch Bacon on the way out and ask for a meeting.

They had been trying to talk to him for months. Gentrup’s exchanges with Bacon at a city parade and a Republican Party rally a few days after the shooting were quick, polite and led nowhere.

She knew she had to make some concessions to get people to listen to her in her deep-red state. Gentrup, 26, didn’t talk about weapons bans. High-powered rifles, she noted, accounted for a tiny fraction of gun deaths, and talk of banning them shut down conversations.

Bacon’s town hall meeting had been over for more than two hours, and he was still inside, socializing with friends in a private room.

About 10:30 p.m., Gentrup gave up waiting for him.

“We are putting a hand out to have a conversation,” she said, “but no one is reaching for it. There’s a reason he didn’t come out that door. He knows we’re out here.”

She headed toward her car.

“Have a conversation with us,” she said. “Do your job.”


Less than 24 hours after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Nebraska state Sen. John McCollister, a Republican, sparked another version of America’s frustrating conversation about guns, racism and the president’s inflammatory words.

McCollister’s medium was Twitter.

“The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country,” he wrote. He wasn’t suggesting that “all Republicans are white supremacists,” nor was he saying that the “average Republican is even racist.” He had spent his life in the state party and considered many of its leaders friends.

“What I am saying,” he continued, “is that the Republican Party is COMPLICIT to obvious racist and immoral activity.” Though he didn’t write it on Twitter, he says he thinks racism has created a climate that makes shootings like the one in El Paso more likely.

In the days after the shooting, local talk radio hosts trashed him as a “limp-wristed, spineless, gutless Republican.” Bacon accused him of “demonizing half of America.” The state party’s executive director called on him to leave the GOP.

McCollister said he was sure the demand had come directly from the state’s Republican governor, who had been his boss at a free-market think tank in Omaha and whom he, until recently, considered a friend.

In the meantime, McCollister’s Twitter followers surged from a few hundred to 40,000. CNN, NPR and the BBC all had him on air. Former defense secretary Chuck Hagel, another Nebraska Republican, emailed to congratulate him.

A few days after the tweet, McCollister sat in his garden, beneath a hummingbird feeder, and wondered what he had accomplished and what to do next.

Former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey suggested that he should run for Congress as an independent. McCollister, 72, said he was too old.

He hadn’t put much thought into gun legislation.

“I suppose I was numb to it,” he said of the mass shootings. “I should’ve been more interested.”

McCollister joined the National Rifle Association in 2014 when he was campaigning for state Senate but ended his membership a few years later.

He’s sure someone will propose gun reforms in the upcoming Nebraska legislative session, and he wants to educate himself and be involved in the effort. He also wonders how much he could really contribute. His tweets would probably make it harder for him to pass bills, he said.

“There will probably be a more organized effort [from the GOP] to make it difficult for me,” he said. For now, his plan is to stay in the party and to keep speaking out.

“I tapped a vein of discontent,” he said, “and I don’t think that will dissipate.”

Forgotten tragedy

There are few reminders in Omaha of the city’s 2007 mass shooting. Three weeks before Christmas, the killer grabbed an assault rifle from his stepfather’s closet and opened fire at the department store, near the customer service desk and the girls’ department. Then, he shot himself.

“Back then, it was huge news,” said Samantha Flynn, 24, whose mother was staffing the gift-wrapping desk when she was killed. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me they don’t remember it. I’m like, ‘You live in Omaha, and you don’t know?’ ”

On the morning of the killing, Flynn, then 13, texted her mother from school about a surprisingly good grade on a math quiz. Later that day, when no one came to pick her up from the library, she left her mom “a snotty voice mail.”

The days that followed were a blur. Flynn’s younger sister, Gretchen, appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Larry King, the former CNN host, called her house looking for her father.

Mass shooting incidents probably happened closer to you than you think

The store closed for 16 days, during the height of the holiday season, to patch the bullet holes and mop up the blood. Today, a plaque reading “In Memory of Those Lost” hangs underneath the escalator to the men’s department. Before the El Paso shooting, it was the largest mass killing at a shopping venue in the United States.

When she’s shopping, Flynn sometimes stops by the plaque, and sometimes she forgets. “I don’t feel any type of way when I go in there,” she said. “I don’t feel gross and sad.”

“My dad will walk in and touch the plaque,” she added.

A few days after the El Paso and Dayton massacres, she stopped by her dad’s house to have dinner with him. Flynn is finishing work on a master’s degree in public administration and hopes to become a police officer. Sometimes she and her father go to the gun range, a pastime she enjoys.

Before she arrived at her dad’s house, she had been reading Facebook posts about the shootings and told her father that she found the dialogue to be depressing, petty and mean.

“No one wants to hear each other, and that’s why nothing is getting done,” she said. “It pisses me off.”

She jokingly mentioned that she was going to open a lemonade stand so that she could have conversations with people who disagreed with her. Her dad, who retired last year as a UPS driver, laughed and told her it was a good idea.

Flynn turned serious. She imagined the question she would ask an assault-rifle owner: “Is your gun worth the life of my mom?”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.