Three heavily-armed masked attackers killed 14 people and seriously wounded more than a dozen at a social services centre for the disabled in San Bernardino in California on Wednesday. A police officer identified Saeed Farooq as one of the two suspects shot dead after the carnage.
President Barack Obama, who was briefed on the attack by his homeland security adviser, reacted with frustration, saying it’s time to say “enough is enough” and do something about easy access to guns in the US. He said stricter gun laws, including stronger background checks, would make the country safer.
In a pre-scheduled interview to CBS, he said: “We have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world. There are steps we can take... to improve the odds that they don’t happen as frequently.”
The attack was the country’s worst mass shooting since 2012 when 20 pupils and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
So far in 2015, there have been more than 350 shootings in which four or more people were wounded, according to the crowd-sourced website shootingtracker.com, which keeps a running tally of US gun violence.
San Bernardino, an hour from San Francisco, is prey to regular gang violence but the desert town has never seen carnage of the scale that left so many dead on what had been just another Wednesday morning.
The attackers escaped but about four hours later police riddled a black SUV with gunfire 3km from the late-morning carnage. A man and woman in the SUV with assault rifles, handguns and “assault-style clothing” were killed, police chief Jarrod Burguan said.
A third person who was spotted running away near the scene of the gun battle was detained, but it was unclear if he was connected to the mass shooting.
Police shed no light on a motive for the massacre, which came just five days after a gunman killed three people at a women’s health centre in Colorado. But independent observers did not rule out terrorism.
That the violence happened at a place dedicated to helping people with developmental disabilities made it even harder for some to comprehend. The Inland Regional Center employs nearly 670 employees and cares for 30,200 people.
In what authorities described as a precision assault, the gunmen invaded the centre and began shooting around 11am. They opened fire in a conference area that was rented out for a banquet.
“They came prepared to do what they did, as if they were on a mission,” the police chief said.
The Los Angeles Times, citing information from a senior official who was monitoring the case, reported that investigators believe one of the shooters left the party after getting into an argument and returned with one or two armed companions.
The police chief said he was aware that someone left the party following some kind of dispute but did not know whether that individual returned.
A witness, who was around the block when the shooting erupted, was not frightened at first. “I’m used to hearing gun shots... There’s gang violence everywhere here, day and night.”
But this soon turned out to be violence on a different level entirely.
Another witness said he heard gunshots outside and then saw an SUV with blacked-out windows pull “very calmly, very slowly”.
“The attackers in ski masks and something that looked like some sort of body armour burst into a conference room and started shooting.”
A woman inside the centre texted her father outside, who read it out to a television crew: “Dad, somebody is shooting inside our building.”
“I’m hiding in a closet.”
“Someone is shooting.”
She made it out safe. But a lot of others didn’t.
“These are all disabled kids, very disabled,” said Sherry Esquerra, who was searching for her daughter and son-in-law, both of whom work at the centre. “She gets all the services she possibly could for these kids. So I just don’t understand why somebody would come in and start shooting.”
Television footage of the entrance to the centre showed wounded people laid out on the sidewalk, their clothes slit open on the spot to allow medics to tend to their injuries. Some of the wounded, visibly shocked, were carried away on stretchers, while others were transported by hand — sometimes loaded into the back of a pick-up truck while waiting for an ambulance.
(With inputs from agencies)