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Toll rises as solutions discussed

Associated Press

EL PASO — The Texas border city jolted by a weekend massacre at a Walmart absorbed more grief Monday as the death toll climbed to 22. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump called for bipartisan solutions to the bloodshed but offered few details as he prepared to visit El Paso on Wednesday. The city’s residents and local Democratic leaders say he isn’t welcome and should stay away.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo defended the decision to welcome the president.

Trump coming to El Paso in wake of the tragedy is unnerving some residents and politicians who said his divisive words are partly to blame. But Margo, a Republican, deflected criticism.

“I want to clarify for the political spin that this is the office of the mayor of El Paso in an official capacity welcoming the office of the president of the United States,” Margo said.

Acknowledging the backlash in the community, Margo added: “I’m already getting the emails and the phone calls.”

Trump, speaking Monday from the White House, declared the weekend mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, barbaric crimes “against all humanity” and called for unity to respond to an epidemic of gun violence. He blamed mental illness and video games but made no mention of more limits on the firearms that can be sold.

Trump said he wanted legislation providing “strong background checks” for gun users, though he has reneged on previous promises along that line after mass attacks. He seemed to abandon his latest idea of linking gun control legislation to immigration policy just a few hours after proposing it.

“We vow to act with urgent resolve,” Trump said. His remarks included a solitary denunciation of white supremacy, which he has been reluctant to criticize.

Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso made clear that the president was not welcome in her hometown as it mourned. Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who was an El Paso congressman for six years, also said Trump should stay away.

“This president, who helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible, should not come to El Paso. We do not need more division. We need to heal. He has no place here,” O’Rourke tweeted.

Other residents in the largely Latino city of 700,000 said Monday that Trump’s rhetoric is difficult for them to stomach.

“It’s offensive just because most of us here are Hispanic” said Isel Velasco, 25. “It’s not like he’s going to help or do anything about it.”

In Dayton

In Dayton, police worked Monday to pin down why a 24-year-old gunman killed nine people, including his sister, in a weekend shooting rampage in a popular nightlife area.

Connor Betts, who was wearing a mask and body armor when he opened fire in the bustling Oregon District early Sunday, was armed with an AR-15-style rifle. If all of the magazines he had with him were full, which hasn’t been confirmed, he would have had a maximum of 250 rounds, said Police Chief Richard Biehl.

“It is fundamentally problematic. To have that level of weaponry in a civilian environment is problematic,” Biehl added.

Betts’ rampage was the second mass shooting in the U.S. over the weekend, both leaving a total of 31 people dead and more than 50 injured.

Of the more than 30 people injured in Ohio, at least 14 had gunshot wounds; others were hurt as people fled, city officials said. Eleven remained hospitalized Monday, Fire Chief Jeffrey Payne said.

Still unknown is whether Betts targeted any of the victims, including his 22-year-old sister, Megan, the youngest of the dead.

“It seems to just defy believability he would shoot his own sister, but it’s also hard to believe that he didn’t recognize it was his sister, so we just don’t know,” Biehl said.

While the gunman was white and six of the nine killed were black, police said the speed of the rampage made any discrimination in the shooting seem unlikely. It all happened within 30 seconds, before police officers stationed nearby killed Betts.

Any attempt to suggest a motive so early in the investigation would be irresponsible, the police chief said.

Betts had no apparent criminal record as an adult. Ohio law bars anyone convicted of a felony as an adult, or convicted of a juvenile charge that would have been a felony if they were 18 or older, from buying firearms.

“There’s nothing in this individual’s record that would have precluded him from getting these weapons,” Biehl said Sunday.

El Paso suspect

Authorities are scrutinizing a racist, anti-immigrant screed posted online shortly before police say Patrick Crusius, 21, opened fire on Saturday. Language in the document mirrors some of the words used by Trump.

The White House hasn’t announced Trump’s trip, but the Federal Aviation Administration has advised pilots of a presidential visit that day to El Paso and Dayton.

Authorities at the news conference in El Paso also revealed details about the suspect’s whereabouts before the shooting — some of the first to come out regarding his movements. Police Chief Greg Allen said Crusius drove more than 10 hours from the Dallas area before arriving in El Paso. He said Crusius got lost in a neighborhood before ending up at Walmart “because, we understand, he was hungry.” Allen didn’t elaborate.

Crusius is from the affluent Dallas suburb of Allen. The police chief said the gun used was legally purchased near the suspect’s hometown. The chief did not say what kind of weapon it was but described the ammunition as 7.62-caliber, which is used in high-powered rifles.

Crusius, who is being held without bond, said in his application for a public defender that he has no income or assets and has been unemployed for five months.

The El Paso shooting is one of the deadliest in U.S. history, and the death toll rose Monday as doctors announced that two more of the wounded had died. Dr. Stephen Flaherty of Del Sol Medical Center described the wounds as “devastating and major” and said that one patient who died had major abdominal injuries affecting the liver, kidneys and intestines.

The hospital did not release the names or ages of the two patients who died, but hospital officials described one as an elderly woman.

Mexican officials have said eight Mexican nationals were among the dead. Tens of thousands of Mexicans legally cross the border each day to work and shop in El Paso.

Allen said 15 people remain hospitalized, including two still in critical condition.

El Paso police publicly identified the 22 killed for the first time Monday, but there were some discrepancies in the spelling of names and nationalities between that list and Mexico’s.

El Paso has long prided itself on being one of the safest cities in the nation. When years of drug cartel-driven violence in neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, left tens of thousands of people dead, El Paso still had one of the nation’s lowest crime rates. Police reported 23 murders last year and 20 the year before that, making Saturday’s rampage a year’s worth of bloodshed.

Authorities searched for any links between the suspect and the material in the document that was posted online, including the writer’s expression of concern that an influx of Hispanics into the United States will replace aging white voters, potentially turning Texas blue in elections and swinging the White House to Democrats.

Vanessa Tavarez, 36, from the rural West Texas town of Seagraves, traveled to El Paso on Saturday to renew her Mexican husband’s residency and work documents. They arrived with their 5-year-old son at a motel only to find police helicopters circling overhead.

Shopping at the Walmart where the shooting occurred was on the family’s to-do list before the attack. She said fear nagged at them after the shooting as they shopped elsewhere for supplies and went to a movie.

“I don’t think anybody would be in favor of him (Trump) being here, first of all,” Tavarez said. “Because a lot of people probably think it’s because of him that everything happened. ... I just think people will be angry.”

Longview Unity and Diversity Committee speaker says lack of love leads to violence

The Rev. Steve Miller said he believes America has no spirit of love. And that, he said, is a problem that leads to violence.

Such violence happened in mass shootings over the weekend at a Walmart in El Paso and an entertainment area in Dayton, Ohio. By Monday, the death toll in the violence had climbed to at least 31.

The El Paso Times on Monday reported that police said the gunman there professed a belief in white supremacy and wanted to shoot people of Hispanic descent and ethnicity. Authorities as of Monday night still had no motive for the Dayton shootings.

Miller, founder of the United States Christian Leadership Organization, addressed the history of slavery and racism in the nation when the city of Longview’s Unity and Diversity Committee met Monday evening.

Miller said words matter and create an environment out of which actions come.

“In many ways, we’ve lost our way,” he said. “The environment is divisive; the speaking environment is divisive.”

Violence can result from that lack of love in the environment, he said.

“In this country, our political leaders, and many of our religious leaders, don’t create an environment of love,” Miller said. “Because of that, people who are not love-seeking pick up on those words, and they create actions that harm other people.”

An environment of love in the nation results in no shootings, Miller said.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about love and action, from which policies in the civil rights movement came, Miller said. Some political leaders have hateful-motivated speech now, which is not new, he said.

“It’s been around since the very beginning,” he said. “We cannot change it by who we elect. We change it by ministers standing up and preaching love across the world. That’s how we change it. It’s not up to the politicians. It’s up to the ministers. It’s up to the men and women of God to change this.”

Jasmine Stoker said the committee’s ability to have tough conversations about issues such as race can combat white nationalism causing violence and shootings.

“People don’t get close enough to other people to hear their side of the story,” she said.

Stoker said it is easy for people to hear only what they want to hear, but surrounding themselves with diverse people and opinions can help with learning about others and combating racism.

“If you surround yourself with people who look like you and who act in your frame of thought, then you’re going to act in a way that’s not respectful of people that don’t look like you, because you don’t have anyone around you to tell you different,” she said. “I think that that’s where we are.”

Stoker said the Unity and Diversity Committee meetings can help bridge a political divide in the country.

“We’ve been separated for a long time, and it’s important for us to have that knowledge and know those truths and that’s what the talk today did,” she said. “I think as we move forward and acknowledge what separated us for so long, maybe we can be drawn together better.”

Collum: Hallsville ISD would not have to raise taxes for bond

Taxpayers in Hallsville ISD could see improvements in their schools without an increase in the tax rate.

Superintendent Jeff Collum said the district is in a strong financial state, with the help of House Bill 3, to get a bond measure approved without raising taxes.

“With what House Bill 3 has done, the compression of the (maintenance and operations) tax rate, it’s helped on the maintenance and operation side, but it’s put us in a position financially where we can leave our (interest and sinking tax) rate the same and generate this new money,” he said. “It’s a really good position for a school district to be in.”

House Bill 3, also known as the school finance bill, provides $5 billion for lower school district taxes and $6.5 billion for classrooms and teachers.

Collum said the different tax rates take care of different budget needs for districts. The maintenance and operations rate deals with day-to-day expenses such as salaries, books, buses and other district needs. The interest and sinking tax rate helps with bonds and debts.

“House Bill 3 money came in to help the (maintenance and operations rate) and teachers and salaries and those costs,” he said. “There weren’t new dollars to take care of bonds and debts. That burden is still on the local school district.”

The board of trustees heard an update on information related to the bond at a special meeting Friday.

According to the bond information on the district’s website, if the bond is passed, the interest and sinking tax rate would remain the same at 33 cents per $100 valuation. House Bill 3 tax compression will lower the maintenance and operations tax rate to 97 cents per $100 valuation, making the district’s total tax rate $1.30 per $100 valuation.

Collum said the bond would be financed under that $1.30 tax rate.

If the Legislature changes school funding in two years, because the interest and sinking tax rate is separate from the maintenance and operations rate, the bond still will be financed under the interest and sinking tax rate, Collum said.

While the bond will have no impact on property taxes, Collum said values could still go up, which the district does not control, and the amount paid in taxes could increase.

With the bond measure, he said the district could take care of some debt and other projects that have been delayed.

One of those projects is security upgrades at the junior high school campus.

“When you walk in, it’s the only campus that doesn’t have that two-tier entry system with the safety vestibule,” he said. “You still have to buzz in on those front entrance doors. We want to go ahead and secure that whole front vestibule and put in a glass and really make that more secure.”

Aside from the security upgrades, the campus needs other upgrades such as new tiles, paint, carpet and other cosmetic changes, Collum said.

Other big projects in the possible $50 million bond would include a new auditorium at the high school campus on Cal Young Road and a new elementary school campus on land owned by the district at Loop 281 and Page Road.

Other bond funds would go to smaller maintenance projects such as roofing, heating and air conditioning, Collum said.

The bond is needed to address growth in the district, he said. The influx in growth is not coming from out-of-district transfers, though.

“I heard some rumors that we had 3,000 transfers, we had 2,000 transfers. That’s not true,” Collum said. “We have less than 300 transfers districtwide.”

If every out-of-district transfer student was pulled from every campus, the district still would be considering a bond measure, Collum said.

“If you throw in the natural growth versus fabricated growth, the transfer influx is fabricated growth,” he said. “If we’re looking at more influx of real growth, you still have students moving in constantly. We’ve grown 900 kids in 10 years. That’s a whole school district for some people.”

The board must give final approval to a bond proposal by Aug. 19 to allow for a November election.

East Texas pastors: Christians should talk about violence in wake of shootings

Churches across Longview echoed sister congregations nationwide Sunday with prayers for victims and survivors of the weekend’s mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.

Some local pastors spoke to their flocks about the Christian response to the violence and its causes.

“Not everybody’s going to be on the same page, but we can’t be afraid to talk about it,” the Rev. Kendal Land of First Presbyterian Church of Longview said Monday. “Right now, everybody’s intractable in their positions. Whenever you shut down what we can’t do, you close options of what we can do.”

The death toll from the two weekend shootings — one Saturday morning at a Walmart in El Paso and the other early Sunday morning at a popular nightlife area in Dayton, Ohio — rose to at least 31 on Monday.

Land said the denomination’s regional leadership in Dallas recently designated a pastor as its gun violence prevention minister. According to a CNN story on the appointment of the Rev. Deanna Hollas to that special ministry, her role is to “oversee over 800 local Presbyterian gun violence prevention advocates across the country and work toward making churches more active in preventing gun violence.”

The Rev. Jay Jackson at Longview First United Methodist Church said worshippers at his church observed a moment of silence Sunday for victims of the weekend tragedies and their families.

“We tied it in, in the sermon, around the whole concept that change happens when we allow it in our hearts,” Jackson said. “That’s where our challenges are ongoing. ... We’re allowing people to fall into isolation, and we need to build connections. We need to be looking at the risk in other people’s lives rather than closing our door. When our eyes are open and our hearts are open, we start to be part of the solution rather than just people who talk about the problem.”

Jackson, like other ministers interviewed, did not have any specific actions he’d like to see elected officials take now.

“We’ve got to start building the relationships that control the situation,” he said. “And I think that’s our role, instead of putting it on elected officials.”

Jackson said views on gun control within his congregation run the gamut, so he doesn’t propose legislation from the pulpit.

“It’s a difficult topic,” Jackson said. “Because people are so divided in their response. So, let’s get at the causes rather than the responses. If we don’t get to the causes, start addressing them in healthy, communal ways, we’re not going to get to any solutions. I think, more and more, people feel isolating themselves protects them, and I think that’s what makes us vulnerable.”

The Rev. Lamar Jones of Galilee Baptist Church in Hallsville had advice for elected leaders.

“What I would like to see is our elected officials serve in their capacity with the heart of God, make their decisions based on the heart of God — not make decisions so they can get re-elected,” Jones said. “But right now, we are trying to keep an open membership, where all people feel welcome and know they are welcome.”

Identifying the root causes of gun violence was the focus for the Rev. Jeff Borgwardt at the First Lutheran Church of Longview, where prayers also went up for those harmed this weekend.

“As a community and as a nation, I think we need to take a look at what’s going on,” Borgwardt said. “And if there are root causes to the violence, that needs to be addressed.”

At Mobberly Baptist Church, the Rev. Glynn Stone often preaches against racism.

“This past weekend, our nation was shocked by the news of these horrific shootings,” Stone said in a prepared statement. “Like the Bible says, we weep with those who are weeping. We believe in the power of prayer, and we encourage everyone to pray for healing for those injured, to ask for peace and comfort for those who lost loved ones and to pray for our nation as we wrestle with how to best prevent these tragedies.”

Stone also touched on Jackson’s point about people falling into isolation.

“At Mobberly, we believe that every person, regardless of race, is made in the image of God,” he said. “We don’t care what color of skin you have, what nation you come from or what language you speak; God loves you and wants to have a personal relationship with you.”