Days After 'Trainwreck' Tragedy, A Pro-Gun Town Grieves

Lafayette shooters - H 2015
Lorena O'Neil

Lafayette shooters - H 2015

"If somebody was armed, somebody could have taken action."

LAFAYETTE, La. — Two-and-a-half miles away from the Grand Theatre where John Russell Houser shot 11 people, killing two women and then himself, lies a gun and wilderness supply store called Lafayette Shooters.

On Saturday afternoon, two days after the shooting, business in Lafayette Shooters was booming. At the gun counter, two women pointed to a small hot pink gun and asked about it. "Oh, that's for kids," manager Thomas Roy explained. The Savage Rascal rifle is priced at $179.98.

In interviews with The Hollywood Reporter, residents of Lafayette, Louisiana, describe their town as peaceful, family-oriented and tightly-knit. The people in the area say they feel shattered by Thursday night's Trainwreck shooting. With their grief comes talk of guns. But many Lafayette residents aren't talking about gun control in the wake of the tragedy; rather, they say if someone that was properly trained had been in the theater, he or she could have stopped Houser from shooting as many people as he did.

"There's been a lot more interest in conceal carry firearm permits, myself and other instructors have been contacted at an increased rate since that evening," local defensive training instructor Michael Saunders of Integrated Defense tells The Hollywood Reporter. One new customer told Saunders, 21, that he hadn't planned on owning a pistol or carrying a gun but was motivated by the shooting.

Saunders says the situation would have "absolutely been different" if somebody in the theater had used a firearm in self-defense. "Most people reacted [to the tragedy] with sorrow, but me, personally, I was simply angry that no-one stopped him," says Saunders, a student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Saunders tells THR, he became focused on defensive training after the Sandy Hook massacre. He imagined the situation happening to him and says, "I couldn't sit back and let these people be murdered." He adds, "I decided that training with a firearm and having it with me at all times when I'm able would make it more likely that I would save lives faster and increase my likelihood of surviving."

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Dennis Boudreaux works at Barney's Firearms and Indoor Range in Lafayette. He is of the same mindset as Saunders. "I believe that if someone had been in the same theater conceal carrying and he had some proper training, there were definitely techniques he could have used to stop the shooter sooner than he was stopped."

Boudreaux says Barney's gets upwards of 40 customers on an average Saturday. Customers can choose from a range of targets, including paper images of terrorists like Osama bin Laden. He says he would like to see people receive more extensive training rather than having them "get the gun, put it in their closet and think they are protected now." 

"The biggest part of training that people fail to realize is that they are going to be moving, the threat's going to be moving and there will be innocent people moving," says Boudreaux. He says shooting at stationary targets on the range doesn't prepare people for the chaos and danger of an incident like a mass shooting. "You can't just aim down your sights at the bad guy and shoot because bullets are going to go through him and hit innocent people."

Shawn Fowler, 25, stopped into Lafayette Shooters on Saturday afternoon. He says he was "very shocked" at the shooting on Thursday and it only reinforced his belief that people should carry concealed weapons. "People in Lafayette feel like everybody should conceal and everyone should have one," he says. "Society these days, anything could happen."

He says the town is full of hunters and fishermen, relaxed and family-oriented. "If somebody was armed, somebody could have taken action," he says of the shooting. Fowler himself owns 13 guns.

Management for Lafayette Shooters says they get hundreds of people coming into the store on an average Saturday. A sign outside of the store boldly proclaims "We Buy Guns." Management does not have plans to cover up the Lafayette Shooters sign in light of the recent tragedy.

Louisiana is a "shall issue" state for concealed carry, meaning state authorities must issue a license to carry a concealed weapon to any applicant if that applicant meets all criteria set forth by law (no criminal record, history of drug abuse, etc.). There are many "shall issue" states, but the eligibility requirements vary state-by-state. In "may issue" states like New York, authorities have more leeway to decide whether the applicant has demonstrated a need to carry a concealed weapon.

Louisiana also has the second highest rate of gun deaths in the country, with 19.3 deaths due to injury by firearm for every 100,000 people. Alaska is the only state to top it, with 19.8 deaths, according to the National Vital Statistics report broken down by the Kaiser foundation

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Lafayette is definitely no stranger to gun tragedies. Just this month, Lafayette resident Seth Fontenot was sentenced to 13 months for killing a 15-year-old boy and wounding two other teens. In 2013, then 18-year-old Fontenot shot three times at a vehicle he believed was carrying people who intended to break into his truck. Fontenot's light sentencing has caused much anger and discourse in the town. Fontenot's re-sentencing was on the same day as the Grand Theatre shooting.

The showtimes for Trainwreck were still flashing on the Grand Theatre marquee on Friday afternoon as Governor Bobby Jindal described the spilled popcorn and "pools of blood" he had seen inside the theater.

Jindal spoke of Houser's "barbaric" attack on the 25 people inside the auditorium, a shooting that Jindal says appears not only to be pre-meditated, but "slow and methodical."

Houser's car was parked near the exit of the theater with the keys on the tire. He selected a seat near the top of the auditorium, presumably for a better vantage point, and fired down on his victims. Houser, 59, used a legally purchased .40 caliber handgun and two 10-round clips. He tried to escape with other theatergoers but when he saw police he returned and opened fire again, possibly injuring yet another victim.

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Police chief Jim Craft says Lafayette police were recently equipped with first responder kits, and they used them to help treat patients on-site. He says police do not know if any of the estimated 300 patrons in the movie theater were armed. The theater is a gun-free zone and does not allow guns, concealed or not.

One man was shot by Houser four times. Three people remain hospitalized as of Saturday afternoon. Mayci Breaux, 21, and Jillian Johnson, 33, were both killed. 

"Mayci was just a beautiful soul," Thea St. Germain tells THR. St. Germain is a manager at Coco Eros, the store where Mayci worked. Coincidentally, St. Germain was at a 6:30 p.m. showing of Trainwreck at another Lafayette movie theater on Thursday, and says she and her boyfriend had almost gone to the 7:00 p.m. showing, where Breaux was killed.

"It's crazy to think if we had gone to that 7 o'clock feature we would have seen her and probably would have sat with her," says St. Germain. "She was just a good person inside and out, and it's the same thing everyone says because it's true."

St. Germain says Breaux was studying to be an ultrasound technician and had plans to marry her high school boyfriend, Matthew Rodriguez, once they were done with school. Rodriguez was with Breaux at the movie shooting, and St. Germain said he was shot as well but is recovering after surgery.

"It doesn't seem real yet," says St. Germain.

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That sentiment was echoed around town, where some flags flew at half-mast. Memorial sites popped up at a church down the street from the shooting, as well as at the gift shop owned by deceased victim Johnson and her husband.

Jillian E. Johnson (1982-2015). Our hearts are shattered. We will love you forever. She was a once-in-a-lifetime gal....

Posted by Red Arrow Workshop on Friday, July 24, 2015

Marcus Bergeron, 25, was watching Spy on the other side of the theater when he heard the fire alarm. He says that at first he just thought it was part of the movie. He says even when people started filing out of his screening room, he took his time since he used to work at the theater and knew that people sometimes pulled the fire alarm as a joke.

But Bergeron says he realized it wasn't a prank when he heard someone yell that there was a shooter inside with a gun. He saw injured people outside in the parking lot and a few others standing by the theater entrance, trying to film what was happening inside with cell phones. "I was scared out of my mind," says Bergeron, the son of a volunteer firefighter. But the possibility of danger didn't stop him from helping. His friend Ryan Garrison, who was also at the shooting, posted on Facebook that Bergeron "rushed to the aid of complete strangers" once he saw they were hurt.

"I ran towards them and saw one guy helping one woman that was shot," says Bergeron. He asked the woman for her name and a phone number of a relative he could contact. Then he began walking around, helping collect more contact information for victims and asking people to get water from nearby stores. Local store owners brought out cases of water and invited people into their air-conditioned buildings, as other people told drivers heading toward the theater to stay away.

Bergeron says he has no feelings about the shooter. As far as Bergeron is concerned, Houser shouldn't get any media coverage. "There's no way anybody in this city would do this," he says. He feels the focus should be on the victims, how people came together and what can be done to prevent another tragedy.

"We have to make sure we're not known for this," says Bergeron. "We have to be known for our culture. Not this tragic event."

"Everybody knows everybody," he says of his beloved town, which he says is full of food, music, Acadian (Cajun) culture and a unified community. "You're just bound together by the city. Everybody loves it here."

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At Friday evening's news conference, Republican presidential hopeful Jindal was asked about gun control and when he skirted the question, was pressed on what he would do as leader of the free world.

"I'm more than happy to talk about this in a few days; right now is not the time," said Jindal, emphasizing that victims were still in the hospital. He said there would be time later for people who want to "score political points" off of the tragedy. "It's been less than 24 hours. Lafayette's grieving. Let us bury our dead."