In early August, a man with a semi-automatic weapon killed 22 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, the year’s deadliest mass shooting so far. Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso native and presidential candidate, quickly returned to the area from the campaign trail. He attended vigils, met with survivors and family members, and gave raw interviews to the press. Pastor Frank Pomeroy didn’t like what he saw, and that was the day he decided to run for office.
Pomeroy knows about mass shootings and their aftermaths. Pomeroy is the pastor at the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, and in November 2017, his 14-year-old daughter was one of 26 people killed when a man entered the church with a history of domestic violence and a semi-automatic rifle. (Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, were traveling that Sunday.)
Pomeroy had long dabbled in local Republican politics, and he began thinking about a run for office a few months after the Sutherland Springs shooting, frustrated by the way “political talking points” took over the news coverage of the event. Watching O’Rourke last month, he said, crystalized his decision. “He said he was taking time off his campaign, but that’s not true,” Pomeroy told me in an interview this week. “He should have been loving on people, but instead he turned it into a talking point about gun control, an emotional tirade about gun control.” A few weeks later, Pomeroy announced that he is running for state Senate in District 21, challenging a popular Democrat who has held the seat for 30 years. “The church will always come first,” he said, “but I feel like the Lord is telling me to run, so I’ll run with all I have.” He places his opposition to most approaches to gun control at the center of his story of why he feels called to run for office.
It may seem baffling that a father’s response to his daughter being killed in a mass shooting would be to oppose gun control and run for office on that idea. After all, the most prominent mass shooting survivors-turned-activists in America are the students from Parkland, Florida, who helped create the March for Our Lives movement. David Hogg and Emma González have become national celebrities; the organization has arranged major protests and issued an ambitious “peace plan” last month.
But the randomness of most mass shootings means there’s no real pattern to survivors’ politics, even after the events that bind them together. (The astonishing number of survivors and family members contributes to a natural diversity in the population: 1,209 people have been injured but not killed in mass shootings this year in the United States, and the number of unhurt survivors and family members is much larger.) Another Parkland survivor, Kyle Kashuv, became a prominent conservative gun rights activist. (Harvard rescinded Kashuv’s acceptance this summer after evidence surfaced that he had used racist language online.) J.T. Lewis, the 19-year-old brother of a Sandy Hook victim, is running for state Senate as a Republican in Connecticut; Lewis, a Trump supporter, says he supports gun control legislation but emphasizes funding for mental health programs and school security.
Four of last month’s eight deadliest shootings took place in Texas, but Texans have complicated attitudes toward gun laws. Only 40 percent want to ban semi-automatic weapons, a number significantly lower than the national figure. Pomeroy sees gun violence as a character issue, related to the “sanctity of life,” the failure to teach values in public schools, and society’s “humanistic self-centered approach.” He would like to see faster responses by law enforcement to threats and manifestos posted on social media. But he doesn’t think restricting access to weapons is the answer. “The problem we have at the moment with the violence sweeping America is not so much to do with the firearm as much as the person holding the firearm,” he said.
When I asked him how a man whose daughter was killed by a semi-automatic weapon in a mass shooting could campaign against banning semi-automatic weapons specifically, he gave an answer that was theologically resonant but politically and emotionally confounding. “One life is just as important to me as 10 lives, so trying to limit the size of weapons doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. His daughter’s life was precious, but a determined killer, he insisted repeatedly, could be just as effective with a knife or a sidearm.
Pomeroy’s campaign gained national attention almost immediately, catching him by surprise. By the time he gathered the members of his church to tell them he was running, Texas reporters had already caught wind of his plans; national attention soon followed. The state party had advised him—wrongly, it turned out—that he would have at least a few months before he had to worry about media attention. More than two weeks into his campaign, he still didn’t have a system set up to accept donations. So far, his campaign consists of himself and a communications consultant.
Pomeroy is trying to get up to speed quickly. He spent last weekend in Galveston at the National Pachyderm Convention, a gathering of Republican clubs. He was there in part to meet with Rafael Cruz, Ted’s father, who will be helping Pomeroy reach Spanish-speaking pastors and others in the southern part of the state. Cruz is often described as a pastor or preacher, although he has never led a church; he is a longtime Republican activist who has said politics and religion are “interrelated” and who advocates for pastors to be more vocal about politics.
The shooter at Sutherland Springs used a semi-automatic weapon that he should have been barred from purchasing because of his conviction for assaulting his then-wife and stepson. Soon after the shooting, Texas Sen. John Cornyn introduced a bill to strengthen the background-check system that should have prevented the shooter from acquiring weapons. For Pomeroy, that’s enough. “OK, done,” he said. “There’s no reason to keep pursuing these ideas, because he did what needed to be done.” This month, Texas enacted new legislation allowing people to carry guns in churches and other houses of worship.
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