4. Human Animal

October 16, 1991

Luby’s Cafeteria — Killeen, Texas

Patrons at Luby’s Cafeteria were just sitting down for lunch on a Wednesday afternoon, to plates heaped high with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, when they heard the roar of a truck engine approaching outside. Looking up from their trays, they saw it come into view through the restaurant’s big floor-to-ceiling windows: a bright-blue Ford Ranger pickup, speeding across the restaurant’s front parking lot.

Suddenly, the driver made a hard turn, straight toward them, and hit the gas. In an instant, the sparkling blue pickup truck came crashing through the glass.

A wave of splintered wood and broken dishes crested into Luby’s dining area, and then scattered. The resulting silence was filled only with the pleasant melodies of the restaurant’s muzak station, and a few hesitant voices — did the driver have a heart attack? Was the gas pedal stuck? — as the diners crowded cautiously around the truck that was somehow, despite all reason, now parked fully inside the restaurant, its shock absorbers lurching back and forth to a halt. Of those customers who peered through the truck’s windshield, the ones who would survive the day all remember the same thing: the driver’s eyes were wide, wide open.

One patron stepped from the crowd, and as he approached the driver’s door, suddenly, two gunshots rang out; he stopped, and fell backward. The truck’s door opened, and a white man in jeans and a flannel shirt, his eyeballs bright and bulging, hopped from the truck’s cab, with a gun in each hand. He announced to the crowd, “This is for the women of Belton!” Then he opened fire.

The crowd scattered, in a mad rush for the rear of the restaurant as gunshots thundered behind them. The rest of the diners hid under tables, or flipped theirs over for cover; for the next five minutes, the gunman traveled in a circuit around the dining area, attacking customers where they hid. There was no path to escape; his truck and his position blocked access to the only exits. Confusion clouded the scenario again: was this a robbery? A terrorist attack? What the hell was going on?

Pausing in between bursts of gunfire, the shooter ranted to his captive audience, forceful, though not quite with anger in his voice — “Wait ‘til those fucking women in Belton see this! I wonder if they’ll think it was worth it!” — except that nothing the shooter said made any sense. And he just kept on like that, pacing around the dining area, shooting, and demanding of his victims, “Was it worth it? Was it worth it?”

One woman, hiding behind an upturned table as the gunman passed by, thought to herself, “It’s a McDonald’s…” — remembering the news stories that came from California back in ‘84. She was even more right that she could have known.

Some of the captives did make a run for the side exit, when the shooter’s attention was diverted. Not all of them made it. Then, as the shooter came by on his second loop around the dining hall, a man in his seventies, Al Gratia, who had been eating lunch with his family that afternoon, suddenly stood from cover and charged at the gunman, unarmed. The shooter, a physically healthy 35-year-old man, saw Al coming, and shot him.

The police arrived soon after that, about five minutes from when the glass first shattered, but as they approached the jagged hole in the window that the shooter’s truck had left behind, they struggled to make out exactly who inside the restaurant was the one doing the shooting. Then, in a single moment, they saw the silhouette of a man turn, raise a gun to Al Gratia’s wife as she sat cradling her husband, and pull the trigger. Then, they knew.

The police immediately opened fire on the shooter’s position, and a seven-minute gun battle ensued. Outnumbered, the shooter retreated to an alcove where the entrances to the restrooms were. He started shooting “blind” around the corner, at the cops, unconcerned that he might run out of ammunition before they did.

During a pause in the gunplay, an attempt was made to end it peacefully: “Police! Drop your weapon and come out with your hands up!”

“Fuck you!” the shooter barked from around the corner.

“Fuck us? Fuck you!”

Another long exchange of gunfire. Shards of porcelain and clouds of drywall dust filled the air. Then, another lull as everyone reloaded, the cheerful muzak audible again. The shooter remained defiant, but his voice was wavering now, whining like an injured animal. “I’m going to kill more fucking people!”

“You’re not going to shoot anybody else!”

After a few more maneuvers and advances, the shooter had sustained four gunshot wounds over his body, and was crawling for a dropped clip. As the police closed in on his position, the shooter rolled onto his back, put the barrel of his pistol to his right temple, and pulled the trigger. His eyes stayed wide open.

* * *

Clearing the building, police searched the gunman’s body, and found that he been armed with a Glock 17 and a Ruger P-89 — both 9mm semi-automatic pistols. He came to Luby’s with extra magazines for each gun, separated into his shirt pockets: the Glock magazines held 17 rounds, and the Ruger held 15, allowing him to fire a total of 32 times before having to reload.

He had purchased both guns legally, from a gun dealer in Nevada, six months before. The Glock was $420, and the Ruger $345. He had filled out the required paperwork for each: a registration sheet with the Las Vegas PD (who asked only for contact info and a description of the weapon) and then a Firearms Transaction Record for the ATF. This form asked the buyer if they had ever been convicted of a crime punishable by up to one year in prison (he answered no, which was true), and if he was a drug user, including marijuana, and he wrote no (which was a lie; he had lost his job with the merchant marines when they found him with weed in his bunk, and he had been arrested with a joint before), as well as if he was a fugitive, an illegal alien, or if he had ever been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces (no, no, and no; all answered truthfully). Then, he left with his guns — there was no waiting period in Nevada, and there was no way to verify his answers anyway.

Part of what made the Luby’s shooter’s mid-massacre tirades so bizarre was that he kept damning “the women of Belton” — a place three towns away from Killeen. Once the police identified him, though, they discovered that he had a Belton address; he lived alone, in a majestic brick home that belonged to his mother. Neighbors called the local landmark “the mansion,” and inside, it was just as neat and well-maintained as the shooter’s sparkling blue truck. But a closer look yielded signs of disorder, clues to the doomed trajectory of the life that had lived there: in a bedroom closet, there was a collection of VHS tapes, crime documentaries that the shooter had recorded off television. They featured famous serial killers, the attempted assassination of President Reagan, and most prominently of all, the 1984 mass shooting at the McDonald’s in San Ysidro; according to his acquaintances, the shooter was obsessed with the incident, and had memorized every detail.

In the bedroom, still in the stereo, there was a well-worn copy of the Steely Dan album The Royal Scam, cued to the shooter’s favorite song, its lyrics depicting an outlaw gunman going out in a blaze of glory: “Don’t Take Me Alive.”

On a wall calendar, the shooter had circled his birthday, and inside the circle he wrote, “I am not an animal nor am I a number. I am a human being with feelings and emotions.” The next day — the day he would attack Luby’s — he had drawn another circle, and inside it wrote, “Life has become a stalemate. There is simply no hope and not a prayer.”

Hall of the House of Representatives — Washington D.C.

All while the shooting was unfolding at Luby’s, Congress was debating another crime bill in Washington. This time, it included a provision that would outlaw 13 specific “assault rifles,” identified with much the same criteria that the ATF had used for their import ban two years before. The bill also would have determined any ammunition magazine that holds more than 15 rounds — for any gun, including pistols — to be considered “large capacity,” a category that would then be outlawed, if the bill passed.

News of the Luby’s shooting broke in mid-session, and a grim statistic became clear: the bloodshed in Killeen was unprecedented. It was worse than in Stockton, worse than any of the shootings that had occurred in the two years since, and even worse than the horror that had unfolded at the McDonald’s in 1984. Never before in American history had there been so many victims claimed by a single mass shooting.

The man who represented Texas’s 17th district (home to both Killeen and the nation’s largest military base, Fort Hood) stood solemnly to put the loss in perspective: “In this one incident — less than a half an hour — more citizens lost their lives than in the month the 25,000 soldiers from Killeen fought for their country in Desert Storm.”

Another representative, from New York: “This House will decide today whether they died in vain.”

But during the next day’s sessions, a representative from Missouri offered an amendment that would completely gut all of the proposed firearms restrictions from the crime bill: no magazine cap, no assault weapons ban. “Everyone in this House wants to stop what occurred in Killeen yesterday,” the congressman began:

That is not the question, but rather how do we stop it? In this specific case, I simply have no answer. When someone loses their mind, as the man who caused this tragedy yesterday obviously did, I do not believe it can be stopped. It was not the pistol that caused those deaths. If it was not a pistol, it could easily have been a rifle, if not a rifle a shotgun. If not a gun, a can of gasoline thrown into the restaurant would have caused as much or more tragedy. If the truck had been loaded with dynamite and the man is willing to die, as in this case he was, how do you stop it?

As it had been after Stockton, the weak point in the crime bill that year was the ambiguity of the term “assault weapon.” The Missouri representative warned the chamber, “Make no mistake about it, failure to support my amendments will result in millions of semiautomatic firearms, owned by millions of law-abiding citizens, [being] left to the whim of the ATF for possible inclusion in the list to be banned.”

A congressman from New Mexico then rose, and framed the tragedy at Luby’s — and the handguns utilized by the shooter, as compared to “assault” guns — as reason not to ban the 13 rifles. “These are not assault weapons,” he emphasized. “They are semiautomatic weapons. They are the same all over. That was proven in Texas. The Glock is not on the list to be banned.” On this point, he was certainly correct.

A representative from California, where the memory of Stockton was still most acute, directed attention back to magazine size as the key issue. “It is that huge capacity ammunition clip that allows an insane person to shoot and shoot and keep shooting,” he explained. “It is when the person has to stop to change the clip that a police officer or someone sane has the chance to stop them.” At the end of his minute at the podium, the Californian concluded: “When I first came to Congress, Stockton happened. I have complained in the well of this floor after every event of mass killing. Please, I do not wish to come here again.”

The Californian didn’t get what he wanted. The amendment passed, and the ban on the 13 rifles, and all high-capacity magazines, was stricken from the crime bill.

Later, President Bush granted a radio interview to NBC, and a reporter asked him if he could comment on the Luby’s shooting. Surrender was palpable in his voice. “Obviously, when you see somebody go berserk and get a weapon and go in and murder people it troubles me,” the president said. “But what I don’t happen to have the answer to is, can you legislate that behavior away?”