A young couple in combat-style clothing killed 14 people and seriously wounded more than a dozen at a social services centre for the disabled in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday in the latest mass shooting in the US.
The two shooters — 28-year-old Syed Rizwan Farook and wife Tashfeen Malik, who is year younger — died in a shootout with police hours after they escaped in a black SUV.
Security officers riddled the vehicle with gunfire 3km from the late-morning carnage and killed the couple carrying assault rifles and handguns, police chief Jarrod Burguan said.
Farhan Khan, who is married to the US-born Farook’s sister, told reporters at the Anaheim office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations on Thursday that he was stunned to hear of his relative’s involvement in the carnage.
Khan said he had “absolutely no idea why he would do this. I am shocked myself”.
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 shooting.
Watch | Shooting rampage in California kills 14, including 2 suspects
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.
Authorities said it was too soon to say whether the shooting was in some way linked to terrorism.
David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said while investigators had initially ruled out terrorism as a motivation for the attack, they were now considering it. “It is a possibility but we don’t know yet.”
The shooting did not bear the hallmarks of a lone-wolf killing, yet differed in key ways from attacks like those perpetrated by the group known as Islamic State or other Jihadists, US officials said.
For example, these officials said, the IS attacks in Paris last month deliberately focused on public places where carnage would have the biggest shock value and frighten residents the most.
By contrast, Wednesday’s attack took place in a little-known location and was more likely to affect families of the disabled and county employees.
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.
“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.”
In what authorities described as a precision assault, the gunmen invaded the centre and began shooting around 11 am. 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,” police chief Burguan said.
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.
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.
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.
President Barack Obama 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.”