Column: She was shot by a sniper in 1966. The Las Vegas massacre brings her pain — and anger about inaction on guns

Irma Garcia did not go to work Monday.

She was too broken up about the Las Vegas shooting massacre, the deadliest in U.S. history. It brought back painful memories of another horrific rampage by a man with a rifle.

Garcia was a 21-year-old student at the University of Texas in 1966, when a Marine named Charles Whitman climbed a tower and began shooting.

Sixteen people were killed and 31 wounded.


Garcia was shot through the shoulder, and the bullet exited near the middle of her back. A stranger dragged her to safety while the shots kept coming.

“Yes, this does bring it back,” she said Monday by phone from her home in Whittier, where the courtroom interpreter was watching the news with her husband at her side for support.

The death toll stood at nearly 60, with hundreds injured.

“I feel for those people. It was so horrible and out of the blue, and you don’t expect it. I’m thinking about all of them, and the ones who survived should get some help. Psychological help. I want to let people know it takes a while.”


Smoke rises from a sniper's gun as he fires from the tower of the University of Texas administration building in 1966.

The last time I spoke to Garcia was in April 2013. A few months earlier, 20 elementary school children had been shot and killed — and six adults murdered — in Newtown, Conn. by a lone, well-armed gunman. It was a tragedy so incomprehensible, many thought it would lead, finally, to comprehensive gun control.

But just before I met with Garcia, an assault weapons ban and an amendment to expand background checks on gun purchases had failed in Congress.

“I was so disappointed,” she told me at the time. “I just wish senators had had more courage to do the right thing.”


Will it be any different this time?

Garcia said she hopes so. Me, too. But I’m not betting on it.

The National Rifle Assn. spent millions of dollars helping elect President Trump, who later told the gun lobby:

“You have a true friend and champion in the White House.”


The congressional GOP delegation, as well as some Democratic lawmakers, are among the NRA’s true champions.

I don’t think it matters how many people get killed in Newtown, Orlando, San Bernardino or Las Vegas. The numbers and details do not make a difference.

“Our Founding Fathers knew that without 2nd Amendment freedom, all of our freedoms could be in jeopardy,” NRA boss Wayne LaPierre said after Newtown. “If you aren’t free to protect yourself — when government puts its thumb on that freedom — then you aren’t free at all.”

No one is free or safe, as a matter of fact, when automatic weapons such as the one used by the Vegas shooter are easy to get ahold of. No such weapon is necessary for self-defense, and no one should be able to amass dozens of firearms, as the Vegas shooter did, without alarms going off.


For all the talk of Muslim travel bans to protect Americans on our own soil, a far bigger threat is domestic terrorism — and, by extension, the NRA. But so far in Washington, the official response to such tragedies hasn’t been to make it harder for weapons to fall into the wrong hands. A package of bills is pending, one of which would make it easier to purchase silencers, and another that would expand the right of gun owners with concealed carry permits to take their weapons into states with more restrictive gun laws.

A child gazes from a school bus as it passes by the funeral service for shooting victim Jessica Rekos, 6, on Dec. 18, 2012, in Newtown, Conn.

A far bigger issue than mass shootings is the daily toll of gun violence, most of which doesn’t make headlines.

“Mass shootings are horrible and grab the nation by the lapels,” said Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, who has worked on gun control as a city councilman, legislator and prosecutor. So sure, he said, restricting large magazines and automatic weapons are public policy no-brainers.


But the majority of gun violence, Feuer said, is from suicide, domestic abuse and gang violence.

“Our focus should be not on what might have had an impact on any one case,” Feuer said, “but on what will have an impact in reducing violence generally.”

Feuer — who is strategizing with a bipartisan group of prosecutors nationally — said one helpful reform would be to make it illegal in every state for someone subject to a temporary restraining order to purchase a gun.

The city attorney also thinks there’s room for more careful restrictions on gun purchases by people with mental health issues.


In my conversation with Garcia, she told me — and then repeated for emphasis — that she was heartbroken by what her home state of Texas has done about guns at school. Last year, Texas made it legal to carry concealed weapons on college campuses, and that right has now been expanded to include community colleges.

She does not agree with the argument that, in a nation with an estimated 300 million guns and far more gun violence than any other country, having more guns on campus makes everyone safer.

“People are going to say, well, if you have a gun you can defend yourself,” said Garcia, who had nightmares for years and whose upper body is still twisted from the damage caused by the bullet that tore into her. “How are you going to defend yourself if a whole bunch of people are packing guns? Can you imagine the crossfire?”

Just as someone came to her aid half a century ago, Garcia said, lots of brave people came to the aid of those who were cut down in Las Vegas. She sees hope in that, and prays there’s a national reconciliation on curbing senseless violence.


One commentator said Monday that mass shootings are the price of freedom.

It’s true that we can’t protect everyone at all times in a country that values civil liberties.

But mass shootings and daily bloodshed are not the price of freedom.

They are the price of gun lust, the multimillion-dollar clout of the gun lobby, the mind-twisting glorification of violence and, most of all, the unconscionable failure of lawmakers to keep us as safe as we can possibly be.


Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez


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