Racism and the black hole of gun control in the US

Would tighter gun laws help protect African Americans or make them more vulnerable to racism and police brutality?

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I will never forget the day in eighth grade when my friend pointed a pistol at my face and pulled the trigger.

I am old enough now that many of my childhood memories have faded into blurry black and white pictures, but 30 years later, that scene is a vivid colour film in my memory.

I can see the smirk in his brown eyes as he points the pistol at my forehead, the slightly blue shimmer of the metal in the afternoon light, the way that the flat side of the barrel reached a nipple of an opening, suddenly curving inward, and the explosion of sound as he pulled the trigger.

Time stretches in moments like these, and as time expanded before me, I thought about my teacher, Mr Levi, and what he told me about space. He had taken a piece of paper from a binder and, twisting it, folded it upon itself so the holes lined up. He drew an arrow going into the hole on one side, and another coming out of it on the other. Then he unfolded the paper, showing me an arrow going into a hole in the top of the page, and coming out of a hole in the bottom, on the other side.

“This is a black hole,” he said in his heavy German Jewish accent, sounding every bit like Albert Einstein. “Once you cross the event horizon, you cannot get out. The gravity is so strong not even light can escape. You are sucked into the black hole and you come out somewhere else in space entirely. And you can never come back.”

As I stared into the barrel of that pistol, the light of the room seemed to disappear into its curvature just like a black hole. I remember thinking that it looked like a place from which nothing could escape.

Latchkey kids

My friend, we will call him Ralph, was a “latchkey kid” like myself. We were young children left to our own devices between the time we got home from school and the time our parents returned from work.

Latchkey kids grow up fast, learning to do things for themselves at a young age. We learned to explore the world of our parents with a freedom other kids never know. The assurance of solitude provides many opportunities to experiment, and sometimes to hide the resulting mistakes.

I remember the meticulous care Ralph took in opening the top drawer of his father’s dresser, and how he intently noted the placement of everything before pulling out the key. I remember the way he brought the chair from his room to reach the shelf in the closet, smoothing clothes he had disturbed and rubbing down the marks on the carpet afterwards. Looking back, it is obvious he had practised this carefully for weeks, learning exactly how to remove and open his father’s gun safe so that he could show me the contents, the most magical talisman a James Bond fan could ever see.

ONLY FOR : Racism and the black hole of gun control in the US
[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

When Ralph pointed his father’s Walther PPK at my face and pulled the trigger, when I heard the loud “CRACK” bounce off the walls in the room as the firing pin found an empty chamber, I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

As I watch my own children grow, that memory haunts me. My children can take great care with the smallest details of toy trains, yet remain oblivious to the consequences of major actions like pushing their siblings while standing on a cliff. It was not until I had children that I realised how close that dichotomy between care and carelessness had brought me to the event horizon of death.

Despite the care with which Ralph removed the safe and covered the evidence of his passing, I have no memory of him checking the chamber. I am not even sure he knew how. With a minuscule change in the location of one small piece of metal, any light that I may have brought into this world could have been sucked into the black hole of that gun barrel, never to escape.

I am not a fan of guns. Whether it is the memory of the Walther PPK, my preference for a good bow, or some fundamental aspect of my character, I see no reason why we need to have access to guns at all. My inclination is to support restrictive gun laws and possibly even remove guns entirely.

But the more I consider the subject of guns, the more I find that the entire topic is, itself, a black hole. The closer I get, the more distorted it becomes, and nowhere is that more obvious or dangerous than at the intersection of guns and race.

A house full of guns

I do not think it is an exaggeration to suggest that lax gun laws and easy access to firearms are a fundamental reason for the success of the civil rights movement. Charles E Cobb Jr notes this eloquently in his excellent treatise on the subject titled This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed.

“The tradition of armed self-defense in Afro-American history,” writes Cobb, “cannot be disconnected from the successes of what today is called the nonviolent civil rights movement.”

This is something many people either forget or never learn: Guns protected the black people who were marching for freedom. If not for the threat of gunfire, many more peaceful protests – and possibly the movement itself – would have been silenced by violence.

“Simply put,” Cobb continues, “because nonviolence worked so well as a tactic for effecting change and was demonstrably improving their lives, some black people chose to use weapons to defend the nonviolent Freedom Movement.”

The tradition of armed self-defense in Afro-American history cannot be disconnected from the successes of what today is called the nonviolent civil rights movement.

CHARLES E COBB JR

Today, our view of the civil rights movement is far removed from the realities of the time. I never experienced the violence and bloodshed of white supremacy during that era, and I cannot even really imagine it. Even modern media representations of the civil rights movement make it seem as though success was all but inevitable, hardly a deadly and dangerous situation at all. As Julian Bond quipped: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day.”

Civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr, and W E B DuBois come across in our polished history as gentle pacifists, but Cobb notes that even Martin Luther King, Jr had a house full of guns, while W E B DuBois wrote after the 1906 Atlanta massacre: “If a white mob had stepped on the campus where I lived I would without hesitation have sprayed their guts over the grass.”

Black people’s access to guns was fundamental to the success of the Black Freedom Movement. This is in no small part because the main opponent of black freedom was the government itself. American history is written with the blood of black families killed by white people who found themselves protected by our government’s belief in the supremacy of its white citizens.

Unable to rely on the government for security, black people turned to the best protection they had: constitutionally protected access to firearms. In their practice of “copwatching,” the Black Panthers used open gun policies to protect innocent black people from victimisation by the authorities. This was so threatening to the white establishment that it resulted in the Mulford Act, a law repealing the public’s right to carry a loaded weapon in public. In fact, some of the first laws restricting gun rights in the US were specifically designed to limit black people’s access to firearms.

So, do we really want more restrictive gun laws in a society where the government has a history of being the largest threat to some people’s freedom? Do we want that government removing those people’s right to protect themselves?

ONLY FOR Racism and the black hole of gun control in the US
[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

You’ll shoot your eye out

Of course, we are now blessedly removed from the brutality of the Civil Rights Movement. Still, it seems our country places a greater value on some lives than others. Few people listen to the choruses of “You’ll shoot your eye out” during A Christmas Story and assume young Ralphie will be shot by a police officer at the end of the movie. Yet this has happened in black communities for decades. Small Tamir Rice, model student, alumni of Space Camp, was by no means the first to fall.

And here we come to an event horizon: the lax gun laws that allowed the Civil Rights Movement to succeed are now applied unevenly.

Five years ago, on November 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir was shot less than two seconds after policemen arrived at the playground in Cleveland, Ohio, where he and his sister were playing. He was told to “drop the weapon,” and in less time than it takes to think “but I don’t have a weapon,” his life was sucked into the black hole of a gun barrel, never to escape.

Following a settlement by the city of Cleveland, the Police Officer’s Union issued a statement that essentially supported the shooting by saying: “Something positive must come from this tragic loss. That would be educating youth of the dangers of possessing a real or replica firearm.”

The irony of this statement is astounding when we consider that in Ohio, a state where it is legal to openly carry a firearm, Tamir was shot for carrying a toy. His life was taken by a member of a police force that then justified the shooting by essentially saying that the law itself is dangerous.

We spend every Christmas romanticising the story of a young boy who wants to play with a rifle. Tamir was different from Ralphie in only in one respect: he was Playing While Black.

If black lives mattered

The US has always had an uneasy time with the idea of black agency. That is especially true when it comes to owning weapons. Even the National Rifle Association, arguably the strongest and most aggressively vocal lobby in the US, is eerily silent when black people are killed for legally possessing firearms, or toys. Yet, as uneasy as the US is with black gun ownership, it is apparently just as uneasy with black healthcare.

As many have already noted, it is easier to access a firearm than mental health services. This is especially true in black communities where mental health is most often treated as a criminal justice issue, the outcome too often being imprisonment or murder.

Black people are also more likely to be imprisoned (and to be imprisoned for longer) for the same offence as a white person. Black people are less likely to be given a job than a white counterpart, and more likely to be fired from that job. Even before adulthood, black children are subject to unfair disciplinary practices in school and suspended for infractions that are considered minor when committed by white children – and this happens as early as preschool.

It is easier to access a firearm than mental health services. This is especially true in black communities where mental health is most often treated as a criminal justice issue.

JOHN METTA

This is the situation in which guns wreak unspeakable damage, and herein lies another event horizon: “black on black crime,” a phrase which illustrates exactly how Black America is seen as “other.”

Our media never discusses “white on white” crime, and never suggests that lower-class white people will not be able to rise out of poverty until they stop fighting among themselves. Blacks (and Latinos, Muslims, etc.) are the other – outside the norm of our culture and society. Because of this, “black on black crime” is actually considered an intelligible phrase.

Because of the consistent view of them as “other,” many black people feel they need to protect themselves from the government itself, a government that has a great many guns. At the same time, the government has until recently refused to allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to even study the issue of gun violence. Suddenly, crackpot gun rights activists spouting theories about government overreach look a lot less crackpot. The police bombing of the compound of a black liberation group called MOVE, in which 11 people were killed, including five children, and an entire neighbourhood destroyed, in Philadelphia in 1985, and the siege of the Branch Davidians at their compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, start looking much more similar than I want to admit.

The relationship between communities and their police force will never improve while the police see and treat the community as an “other”.

ONLY FOR Racism and the black hole of gun control in the US
[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

We arrive again at the black hole. I want to believe a public disarmament could result in a de-escalation of the police force. If we had fewer guns on the streets, could police afford to appear less like an occupying army working in a war zone? Could our police forces become a part of our communities and learn to de-escalate violence instead of appearing to encourage it? With tougher gun laws, could healthcare and even just basic humanitarian concern become our primary mode of response rather than a tactical encounter?

Sadly, both history and current trends in the US government suggest otherwise.

When I was in Ralph’s house looking into the barrel of a Walther PPK, I had no idea that I really was staring into a black hole from which I would never escape.

Remembering that moment, I thought my answer to the question of gun control would be easy. Yet the more I look at the issue, the more the light bends and the picture distorts. Thirty years later, I’m still looking down that barrel into a black hole from which I feel I will never escape.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

BBC: Why so many US ‘mass shooting’ arrests suddenly?

A makeshift memorial at the scene of Dayton, Ohio's mass shooting in AugustA makeshift memorial after the shooting in Dayton, Ohio

In the last three weeks US authorities have arrested at least 28 people accused of threatening acts of mass violence. What’s behind this surge and could they all be convicted?

The threats ranged from posts on social media and video gaming sites to verbal comments to colleagues and friends. In at least two cases, suspects sent text messages to ex-partners. Hoards of weapons were also found in some cases.

The FBI won’t say what is behind the steep bump in apprehensions, some carried out by that agency, others by local police. It’s not clear if it marks a growth in threats or simply a rise in awareness and tip-offs.

But former FBI boss Andrew McCabe said on Friday there was undoubtedly a “renewed awareness” focused on the sort of threats that a few months ago might have been ignored by investigators mindful of the right to free speech as enshrined in the US Constitution.

The first amendment offers broad protection of free speech, even if that speech is racist or of a violent nature. Prosecutions in the US are further complicated by the second amendment which safeguards the right to bear arms.

So what can be done to stop a shooter before they strike?

When a threat becomes a crime

More than two dozen people are reported to have been arrested for making threats to carry out mass violence since the 3 August shooting in El Paso.

Many of the alleged plots foiled by US law enforcement included plans to target specific minority groups. But without any federal penalties in place for acts of domestic terrorism – like those that exist for international terrorism – the charges varied – false threats, terrorist threats, illegal possession of weapons and disorderly conduct.

It’s unclear how these various cases will fare at trial. For charges asserting threats of violence, the threats must be highly specific, accompanied by evidence of imminent danger.

FBI investigators arrive at the home of suspected nightclub shooter Ian David Long on November 8 2018, in Thousand Oaks, CalifornianFBI investigators approach the home of a suspected mass shooter

“The whole test is whether something is a clear or present danger,” says Martin Stolar, a civil rights lawyer based in New York. You must be expressing a clear intention to commit a crime, he continued, and close to committing it.

A case in Vermont shows how tricky it can be to prosecute. Jack Sawyer, 18, was arrested in 2018 after he threatened to cause mass casualties at his former high school. A friend had informed police, who searched his car and found a 31-page diary entitled Journal of an Active Shooter.

The state’s attorney charged Mr Sawyer with four felonies – two counts of attempted aggravated murder, and one count each of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, among the most serious charges in Vermont.

A memorial for victims of the Dayton, Ohio shootingA memorial for victims of the Dayton, Ohio shooting

But within months, all four felony charges were dropped. Mr Sawyer walked free in April 2018 and has now been adjudicated as a youthful offender for carrying a dangerous weapon. He will remain under state supervision until he turns 22.

The court found that he had stated his intentions to commit harm but no action followed, says Vermont-based lawyer David Sleigh. “Simply contemplating a crime is not a crime in Vermont.”

All states have laws that bar violent threats. Threats made by US mail or interstate commerce, for example, are considered criminal. But those threats generally must include the incitement or solicitation of specific violent acts to be considered criminal.

“You don’t criticise someone for speaking, you criticise people for picking up a gun,” says Mr Stolar. “When speech crosses the line.”

A candlelight vigil for the victims of the El Paso and Dayton shootings was held at the 6th Presbyterian Church in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh, blocks from the Tree of Life SynagogueA candlelight vigil for the victims of the El Paso and Dayton shootings in Pittsburgh

Without a designated target, an immediate timeline, or clear preparations to commit assault, violent words may be protected speech.

There must be “action and imminent danger,” Mr Sleigh says. “As opposed to trying to criminalise evil or unpalatable thinking.”

What happens in other countries?

In terms of free speech protections, the US is singular.

“In some countries, they’ve criminalised certain types of hate speech that are protected here,” says Mary McCord, a former senior national security prosecutor, now legal director at Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

“They have a tool available in those countries to prevent some of the type of speech that can be used to recruit new adherents to an ideology.”

What about other countries?

In the UK, for example, an expression of hatred related to a victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal.

In Canada, too, there are more restrictions on free speech than in the US. The federal criminal code includes multiple provisions barring hate speech, including those that impose criminal sanctions against anyone who willfully incites hatred in public against an identifiable group, including those distinguished by race, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability.

Such sensitivities “present barriers,” Ms McCord says, “to effectively combat the spread of violent ideologies.”

But in the US, she continues, “we respect the first amendment.”

Is an arsenal legal?

The implications of the first amendment are complicated by the second, which enshrines the right to gun ownership.

In many of the recent arrests, suspects were found in possession of firearms and other weapons. But even where suspects were found with a hoard of firearms – like 18-year-old Justin Olsen, who was found with more than a dozen rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition – the cache of weapons uncovered were legally acquired, and do not provide grounds to prosecute.

Police seized weapons including an assault rifle from a man in California, accused of plotting a mass shootingPolice seized weapons including an assault rifle from a man in California, accused of plotting a mass shooting

“If a person’s not prohibited for having a weapon, he could have a bunch of weapons, he could not be breaking any laws at all,” says Ms McCord.

She has drafted a proposal to criminalise the stockpiling of weapons for use in a domestic attack.

“That would enable the government to prove his intent,” says Ms McCord, giving law enforcement an additional tool to thwart potential offenders before they act. Without standing law specifically addressing domestic terrorism, “law enforcement has to find something to charge [suspects] with because there’s nothing that directly applies. They’re cobbling things together to charge.”

Ms McCord is among a growing number of those within the intelligence community calling for domestic terrorism to be classified as a federal crime, giving law enforcement expanded preventative powers – similar to those that apply to international terrorist groups.

But some civil rights advocates and attorneys balk at giving the US government any more power. They argue that existing laws, when enforced, are sufficient.

“I think the rush to try to expand police authority into regulating rights of free speech or rights to gun ownership should be taken very, very carefully,” Mr Sleigh says.

Does the combination of the first and second amendment create a volatility that does not exist elsewhere, he asks.

“I suspect it does. But it’s been part of our national project to embrace that liberty and freedom, knowing that it comes with risk.”

Wal-Mart: America’s #1 gun salesman.

After the recent tragic shootings in El Paso, it’s absolutely unthinkable that Walmart would continue to profit from gun sales. They must stop the sale of guns in their stores now!

Walmart must prioritize community safety over profits made from gun sales. They must stop the sale of guns in their stores now!Sign Matthew’s petition

Companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods have already taken actions to use their economic leverage to curb gun violence.1

Walmart is one of America’s largest gun sellers and must be part of the movement to end gun violence. The company has taken some steps in recent years—but the stores are still selling weapons of destruction and selling bullet-proof backpacks at the same time. Walmart has the power to make a real difference, not just cosmetic changes.

Please join with us and ask Doug McMillon, the Chief Executive of Walmart, to stop the sale of guns in his stores now.

Click here to add your name to this petition, and then pass it along to your friends.

Thank you.

—Matthew Hildreth, Rural Organizing

Stop Mass Shootings (MoveOn Gun Control Team)

On Sunday, a gunman with a military assault-style weapon killed three people, including a 6-year-old boy, and injured 12 at a garlic festival in California. It was the 42nd mass shooting in July alone and the 246th in America this year.1

These shootings need to stop. At festivals. At schools. At places of worship. At night clubs. At movie theaters.

There are so many simple, clear steps that lawmakers can take to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in America—by passing into law policies that are supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans and even most gun owners.2,3

Universal background checks. Closing the gun show loophole. Banning assault weapons such as AR-15s. Banning bump stocks.

Indeed, the Democratic U.S. House passed two bills that would accomplish many of these goals earlier this year, but Mitch McConnell and the GOP—at the bidding of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun manufacturers—won’t even allow the bills to come up for a vote in the Senate.4 They won’t even allow federal funding for research into gun violence.5 It’s outrageous. And it’s heartbreaking.

That’s why we’re going to hold McConnell and other vulnerable GOP senators accountable and defeat them in 2020, starting with putting up billboards in central, high-traffic locations in their home states that highlight their role in America’s gun violence epidemic. Will you pitch in $3 to help us pay for the billboards?

Yes, I’ll chip in now to help hold GOP lawmakers accountable, fight the NRA, and end the epidemic of gun violence in America.

The horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly seven years ago should have been a tipping point on gun violence in America, but since then:

  • There have been approximately 2,185 mass shootings.6
  • Congress has passed into law zero measures to make our children and communities safer.
  • The NRA and gun manufacturers continue to write big checks to Republican politicians.

According to polls, Mitch McConnell and other GOP senators who are up in for re-election in 2020 are increasingly vulnerable.7 But to defeat them in 2020—which is the only way we can finally pass legislation to address America’s gun violence crisis—we need to make sure their constituents know that they’re standing with the NRA and blocking commonsense reforms to address America’s gun violence epidemic.

We didn’t budget for the billboards, which is why we’re asking you to chip in now, so we can quickly purchase them. We can only do it if we raise the money now. Can you chip in $3—or whatever you can afford—right now?

Yes, I’ll chip in to help hold McConnell and other NRA-funded politicians accountable.

We can never forget that the GOP is culpable in these heartbreaking and avoidable gun deaths, as a result of their obedience to the NRA’s dangerous agenda. Let’s make sure that the voters in their states know it, too.

Thanks for all you do.

–Emily, Emma, Stephen, Manny, and the rest of the team

Florida teachers can arm themselves under new gun bill!

Critics question if the solution to gun violence is the presence of more guns, warn of the danger of teachers misfiring.
Firearms instructor Mike Magowan uses a rubber training pistol to demonstrate a shooting stance ,during a teachers-only firearms training class offered for free at the Veritas Training Academy in Sarasota, Florida  [File: Brian Blanco/Reuters]
Firearms instructor Mike Magowan uses a rubber training pistol to demonstrate a shooting stance ,during a teachers-only firearms training class offered for free at the Veritas Training Academy in Sarasota, Florida

Florida’s legislature on Wednesday passed a bill allowing teachers to carry guns in the classroom, expanding a programme launched after the deadly high school shooting in Parkland with the aim of preventing another such massacre.

Florida’s House of Representatives voted 65 to 47 to pass the bill after hours of debate over two days in which the Republican majority thwarted Democratic efforts to amend, stall or kill the measure. Florida’s Senate approved it 22 to 17 last week.

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law, enabling school districts wishing to take part in the voluntary Guardian programme to arm those teachers who pass a 144-hour training course.

On February 14, 2018, a former student armed with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.

President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association have argued an armed teacher could provide the best defence against a shooter bent on mass murder.

Gun control

Opponents questioned whether the solution to gun violence should be the presence of even more guns and warned of the danger of a teacher misfiring during a crisis or police mistaking an armed teacher for the assailant.

More than 1,200 children in US killed by guns in the last year

Its passage marks a victory for gun-rights advocates, who were on the defensive a year ago when Parkland students inspired nationwide protests in favour of gun control.

After the Parkland shooting, Florida politicians rushed through legislation that required schools to place at least one armed staff member or law-enforcement officer at each campus.

The law also imposed a three-day waiting period for gun purchases and raised the age limit for buying rifles from 18 to 21.

Although last year’s law allowed some school personnel to carry weapons, guns were still banned from the classroom.

Backers of arming classroom teachers revived the issue this year, arguing that school shootings often erupt too quickly for law enforcement to respond.

Florida remembers Parkland high school shooting victims

In anticipation of passage, school employees in 40 of Florida’s 67 counties already enrolled in or planned to take the 144-hour course, a spokesman for the Speaker of the House said. Some counties have resolved not to participate in the Guardian programme.

Florida’s gun-control advocates had made stopping the proposal a top priority, among them Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense, which is funded by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

 

The Aftermath: Mass Shootings in the US

San Diego rabbi: ‘My fingers got blown away’

The shooting happened at a synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego

“I was face to face with this murder terrorist who was holding the rifle and looking straight at me.”

A rabbi has told US reporters about the synagogue shooting near San Diego on Saturday, in which one woman died and three people were wounded.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was one of those injured, losing the index finger on his right hand.

A 19-year-old man named as John Earnest was arrested shortly afterwards in Poway, north of the Californian city.

The attack comes exactly six months after a shooting in Pittsburgh in which 11 people were killed, thought to be the worst anti-Semitic attack in recent US history.

What did the rabbi say?

Rabbi Goldstein was walking into the banquet hall at the synagogue when he heard a noise – what he thought initially was a table falling over or a congregation member collapsing.

“As soon as he saw me, he started to shoot toward me and that is when I put my hands up,” Rabbi Goldstein said on NBC’s Sunday Today programme. “I cannot erase that face from my mind.”

He held up his hands to shield himself but his fingers “got blown away”.

Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church members hold a candlelight vigil for victims of the synagogue shootingCongregants at a nearby Presbyterian church held a candlelight vigil for victims of the shooting

Rabbi Goldstein hurried through to the banquet hall where a number of children – including his granddaughter – were gathered.

“I just ran, not even knowing that my fingers were blown off and curled all the kids together and got them outside,” he said.

Lori Kaye, who helped found the synagogue with Rabbi Goldstein, was shot dead in the attack.

“Everyone in the community knew her,” he said. “I’m just so heartbroken and saddened by the senseless killing.”

A 34-year-old man and a young girl suffered shrapnel wounds in the attack.

How did the attack unfold?

Sheriff Gore said officers were called to the Chabad synagogue just before 11:30 (18:30 GMT) after the man opened fire with an “AR-15 type” assault rifle.

He said an off-duty border patrol officer had fired at the suspect as he fled the scene in a vehicle, but had not not hit him.

The suspect was later arrested by another officer, said San Diego chief of police David Nisleit.

“He clearly saw the suspect’s vehicle, the suspect jumped out with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” Mr Nisleit said.

“As the officer was placing this 19-year-old male into custody, he clearly saw a rifle on the front passenger seat of the suspect vehicle.”

Poway map

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore told reporters that investigators were reviewing the suspect’s social media activity and examining a virulently anti-Semitic “open letter” published online.

In the letter, which appeared on the online forum 8chan hours before the attack, the author – who identified himself as John Earnest – said he had been inspired by the attack on two Christchurch mosques last month, as well as the Pittsburgh shooting.

Authorities later said Mr Earnest was under investigation in connection with a fire at a mosque last month.

Anti-Semitic attacks on the rise

The racist, anti-Semitic document that police are investigating in relation to the shooting makes 10 references to Robert Bowers whom the author John Earnest calls an “inspiration”.

Mr Bowers is the man charged with killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October – the deadliest attack on the US Jewish community in the nation’s history.

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh attack, members of the US Jewish community began openly questioning whether the era of seeing the US as a safe haven was over.

“I had been dreading and expecting this day, and more like it, for two years,” wrote the Washington Post columnist Dana Millbank, in a column titled “Trump’s America is not a safe place for Jews”.

A woman reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shootingA woman stands at a memorial at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October

In the wake of Saturday’s attack in Poway, the Times of Israel published a blog post headlined, “Synagogue shootings – now a thing”. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which monitors extremism in the US, says anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Mr Trump has publicly condemned anti-Semitism, and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said it was “outrageous” to suggest he bore any responsibility for it, but many have accused him of using coded anti-Semitic language.

The ADL publicly called on him to stop using tropes such as “global special interests” and “those who control the levers of power” – both of which he ran in an ad alongside pictures of prominent Jews – as well as his claim that there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, after white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us”.

“All of the Jewish community across the country is concerned,” Joel Rubin, a Democratic Strategist and member of the Tree of Life synagogue, told Fox News on Saturday. “My daughters go to Hebrew school and we see police cars often in front of the school, guarding it. That’s not the situation in America we want to be living in.”

A message of support outside the Chabad synagogue near San DiegoA message of support outside the Chabad synagogue near San Diego

California synagogue shooting leaves one dead, three wounded

Police say gunman opened fire on crowded Poway, California synagogue on the last day of Passover.

Two people hug as another talks to a San Diego County Sheriff''s deputy outside of the Chabad of Poway synagogue [Denis Poroy/AP Photo]
Two people hug as another talks to a San Diego County Sheriff”s deputy outside of the Chabad of Poway synagogue

A gunman walked into a southern California synagogue crowded with Sabbath worshippers on Saturday and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing one woman inside and wounding three others in a hate crime carried out on the last day of Passover, authorities said.

The suspect, 19-year-old John Earnest, fled the scene by car and was arrested a short time later when he pulled over and surrendered to police, authorities said.

There were indications that an AR-type assault weapon might have malfunctioned after Earnest fired numerous rounds inside the Congregation Chabad synagogue in the town of Poway, California, about 23 miles (37km) north of downtown San Diego, Sheriff William Gore said.

US President Donald Trump and other elected officials decried what they called an anti-Semitic attack exactly six months since 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest assault on Jews in US history.

2018 saw most killings linked to US far right since 1995: ADL

Gore told reporters that four people were struck by gunfire and taken to Palomar Medical Center, where one of the victims, an “older woman”, died. The three other patients – “two adult males” and a “female juvenile” – were listed in stable condition, Gore said. The identities of the victims were not given.

Hate crime

Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, speaking from a police command centre, characterised Saturday’s shooting as a “hate crime“, saying his assessment was based on statements uttered by the gunman when he entered the synagogue.

Nothing else was disclosed about a possible motive. But Gore said investigators were reviewing the suspect’s social media posts and “his open letter”.

Earnest has no criminal record, but investigators were looking into a claim he made in an online manifesto about setting a fire at a mosque in nearby Escondido last month, Gore said. There was damage but no injuries.

Speaking with reporters at the White House, Trump said: “My deepest sympathies go to the people that were affected.” He added that “it looks like a hate crime” and that authorities will “get to the bottom of it”.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, left, walks past the Chabad of Poway Synagogue

The attack occurred shortly before 11:30am local time (18:30GMT) in Poway, a suburb of about 50,000 residents, when the suspect walked into the synagogue and started shooting, Gore said. As he was making his getaway, an off-duty US Border Patrol agent opened fire on the suspect, striking the vehicle but apparently missing the suspect, according to Gore.

The gunman was arrested a short time later when he peacefully surrendered to police.

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A San Diego officer was en route to the shooting scene when he overheard a California Highway Patrol (CHP) radio dispatch “of a suspect who had called into CHP to report that he was just involved in this shooting and his location,” San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit recounted.

“The officer was actually on the freeway and he clearly saw the suspect in his vehicle. The suspect pulled over and jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” Nisleit said.

He said the assault-style rifle believed to be the murder weapon was found on the front passenger seat of the car.

‘You can’t break us’

Local television channel KGTV 10News said the synagogue was hosting a holiday celebration beginning at 11 am local time and due to culminate in a final Passover meal at 7pm . Authorities said about 100 people were inside the temple, where Saturday services marking the Jewish Sabbath would have been under way or have just concluded.

San Diego television station KGTV reported a woman whose husband was still inside the synagogue as saying the rabbi was among those shot.

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Minoo Anvari, an Iranian refugee who said her husband was attending services inside when gunshots rang out, told KUSI-TV the wounded included a female friend and the rabbi, who was shot in the hand. “We are united. You can’t break us.,” Anvari told KUSI.

Cantor Caitlin Bromberg of Ner Tamid Synagogue, down the street from the shooting scene, said her congregation learned of the shooting at the end of their Passover services and that they were heading to Chabad of Poway to show support and help.

“We are horrified and upset, and we want them to know we are thinking of them,” Bromberg told The Los Angeles Times, adding that she has not heard from Chabad of Poway leadership because they would not normally use the phone during the Sabbath.

“They would only do that on emergency basis, if they do it at all,” Bromberg told the newspaper.