United States Representative Barry Loudermilk doesn't speak about mass shootings as abstract social phenomena — rather, he discusses the subject firsthand as a victim of gun violence.
On the morning of June 14, 2017, he stood near home plate at a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia. It was the last practice before the annual Democrats vs. Republicans charity game, set to take place that year at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
It was 7:08 a.m., and the representative from Georgia’s 11th District had just walked out of the practice cage. As the designated hitter, he stepped up to bat while wearing a bright yellow Kennesaw State University uniform.
That was when he heard the first gunshot.
“I live in Cassville, we hear gunshots all the time, right?” he recounted at a North Georgia Power Connectors luncheon held Wednesday at LakePoint Station in Emerson. “Then all of a sudden, it dawned on me, why am I hearing a gunshot near Washington, D.C.?”
The shot, he recalled, came down the third base line. Loudermilk turned his attention to a SUV manned by security for U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Republican representing Louisiana’s first congressional district.
When he glanced at the vehicle, the first thing he saw were two individuals quickly exiting it — both of whom looked extremely concerned.
A shot had been fired at the team’s third baseman, Trent Kelly — a representative of Mississippi’s first congressional district, who was later promoted to brigadier general in the Mississippi National Guard.
What Loudermilk now knows is that the shooter was standing about 10 feet off a fence, directly behind the adjacent dugout.
“His bullet actually hit one of the links in the chain link fence and deflected,” Loudermilk said. “It was a miracle.”
At that point, Loudermilk recalled Kelly screaming “He’s got a gun, run,” just prior to the shooter opening fire.
“He knew what he was doing, he moved tactically,” Loudermilk recounted. “He had an SKS, it’s a Chinese-made military-style weapon. And he was picking his targets.”
Loudermilk, who was in the United States Air Force for about eight years, started sprinting up the first baseline. He said he could feel his decades-dormant “military training” kicking in while he watched those fleeing the gunfire seek refuge in a dugout.
“If this guy gets on the field, that’s a massacre site, it’s a kill box,” he said. “I realized I had to take a longer path to get off the field.”
He recounted watching clods of dirt explode to his left as he ran down the field. At that moment, Loudermilk recognized the gunman was shooting at him.
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake crossed his path and dove into the dugout. A few days later, he told Loudermilk he was amazed that he managed to avoid being struck, stating that he recalled seeing the bullets land to Loudermilk’s right.
“Those bullets had to be going through my legs, because he’s shooting from over here and they’re hitting over here,” he said.
He recalled at least five or six shots narrowly missing him before he exited the field. By then, Scalise had already been shot in the hip — something Loudermilk didn’t see because it was out of his peripheral vision.
Outside the field, Loudermilk could still hear bullets rattling off the post. While he hid behind a shed, the shooter continued to track him, working his way behind the backstop.
Loudermilk then watched staff member Matt Mika collapse. He was shot in the back, with the bullet exiting out of his chest. Another bullet narrowly missed Loudermilk while he tended to his fallen colleague; witnesses later said the bullet missed him by less than a foot.
The gunfire, he recounted, went on for about eight minutes. Over that time period, the gunman fired over 100 rounds.
“He had a hit list in his pocket of Republicans, and before he started shooting he said something about us repealing Obamacare,” Loudermilk said. “He was driven to this by hatred … he knew who he was targeting.”
While hunkered down behind an SUV, Loudermilk said the shooter continued to fire towards his vicinity. The gunman struck two Capitol Police personnel before Alexandria police officers arrived and the gunman was fatally shot.
“Not one time did I think ‘You wait until I get back to the Capitol, I’m going to pass a bill,’” Loudermilk said. “I never thought of passing legislation, because the guy that was trying to kill us was there to commit murder, and murder’s illegal … he was already violating dozens of state and federal laws, adding another minor felony or misdemeanor wouldn’t mean a hill of beans to him.”
Amazingly, it wasn’t the only time Loudermilk almost fell prey to a gunman’s bullet. Months after the shooting in Virginia, he recounted driving up Highway 515 in north Georgia when his spouse heard something hit the back of their car. When they later examined the vehicle, Loudermilk said he found an AR-15 round embedded in it.
“The FBI did the investigation, I was there when they did their trajectory,” he said. “[They said] ’It looks like somebody was laying prone on the side of the road, waiting for you to go by.”
In the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Loudermilk said many politicians have pursued “feel-good” legislation to address the issue of national gun violence.
Yet he said he believes the root of the problem isn’t something that can be eliminated through a plethora of new firearm laws and regulation.
“There is very little we can do in Washington to end these major issues that we’re facing,” he said. “Because they’re cultural issues. There’s very little we can do to end evil.”
He said he’s doubtful extending background checks to private firearm sales would do much to deter future mass shootings.
“It sounds logical, but every one of those mass shootings, they bought their weapon from a Federal Firearms License dealer — it would have no effect on it whatsoever,” he said.
Nor does he think proposals to limit high capacity magazines would make much of an impact.
“Let’s cut it down to 10 rounds, if you’re proficient with a weapon you can swap out a mag pretty quickly,” he said.
Continuing, he said the nation’s political climate is not conducive for another federal assault weapons ban, such as the one from 1994-2004 that made the manufacturing of new semi-automatic firearms illegal.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get an assault weapons legislation through,” he said. “Even in Georgia, there are still a lot of Democrats that are very pro-Second Amendment … I think the best solution that you could come up with is something that’s done at the state level.”
So-called “red flag” laws — laws that allow police or family to petition a state-level court to confiscate the weapons of a person believed to be “a danger to others or themselves” — may have an effect, Loudermilk said, but only on the local level.
“The federal level’s going to do it as a one-size-fits-all, and it isn’t going to work,” he said. “You can petition the court for the court to actually go in and confiscate their firearms, so if a family member’s not willing to do it now, do you think they’re actually going to be more willing to go in and have their guns taken?”
At the moment, 19 states and Washington, D.C. have some form of "red flag" laws on their books.
Still, Loudermilk said he has concerns about the “red flag” laws as civil liberty issues. Furthermore, he said he can easily see political organizations “weaponizing” the laws to come after ideological rivals.
“We don’t want to get into the place where you’re using the ‘red flag’ law as a tool to go after a family member or a neighbor you don’t like,” he said. “There are definitely some privacy issues and due process issues, more than anything else.”
MENTALLY ILL OR RADICALIZED?
The root of America's mass shooting epidemic, Loudermilk said, isn't a question of mental health. Rather, he argues it's a matter of ideology.
“Is someone who walks into a Walmart and does this type of thing, are they mentally ill or are they radicalized?" he asked. "Are the terrorists that flew the planes into the Twin Towers, were they considered mentally ill? They just justified it as right because of religious extremism."
While Loudermilk praised the United States Department of Homeland Security for zeroing in on the factors that lead to Islamic extremist violence, he said analyses of the same "triggers" for mass shootings have yet to be fully identified.“We have to spend more time researching what is it that’s causing this,” he said. “We’re responding emotionally. What I think we need to do when it comes to these mass shootings is take the investigation a step further — not just look at where did the person get the weapons, was that person considered to be mentally ill or were they radicalized like a lot of terrorists are?”
Ultimately, he said he’s fearful that if Congress rushes into new gun control legislation, not only will the laws have no effect on deterring mass shootings, it may be “contrary to what could actually help the situation.” He brought up an off-duty firefighter in Missouri, who pulled a gun on a man who entered a Walmart carrying a tactical rifle and more than 100 rounds of ammunition — in the process, perhaps preventing another bloodbath from transpiring.
"We don’t want the Wild West, but it does happen where people do defend themselves,” he said. “You have to be trained in not just the usage of a firearm, but when to use it. You need to know the law, it’s a weapon of last resort. In a situation like the baseball field or the Walmart in El Paso, that is a last resort.”
Simply put, he said he doubts more stringent federal gun control laws would do much to prevent gun violence. “Look at Chicago right now. They have the strictest gun control laws in the nation — 80 killings, in just the past few weeks, by guns?” he said. “There are aspects of it that don’t work.”
To best approach the issue, Loudermilk said he believes citizens should stop looking to Washington, D.C. for solutions and address the matter from a more local perspective.
“Confiscating weapons, limiting capacity of magazines is not going to have the effect people think it does,” he said. “We need to bring Clark Millsap into this, his deputies, the sheriffs from across Georgia, other law enforcement officials and talk about what we can do effectively.”
Despite the nonstop media coverage of mass shooting incidents, Loudermilk notes that such events remain statistically rare.
“The likelihood of you getting shot at a shopping mall is less than you getting struck by lightning in the next thunderstorm that comes in, but the reality is we’re fearful of that,” he said. “If Congress passes one of these bills, regardless if it does anything or not, we’ll walk away from it and you won’t keep addressing the issue.”
“THERE’S A LOT OF FIGHTING GOING ON RIGHT NOW”
The contention over gun control and mass shootings, Loudermilk said, is emblematic of “politics as usual” these days on Capitol Hill.
“There’s a lot of fighting going on right now, there’s a lot of name calling,” he said. “We need to take a collective breath and stop demonizing each other.”
Partisan politics has gotten so fierce, Loudermilk said, that he alleges some lawmakers on the other side of the aisle are intentionally sabotaging legislative efforts simply to impede President Donald Trump.
"I’ve got some Democrats on the other side that supported legislation dealing with banking regulations that I pushed through committee last year,” he said. “Maxine Waters, she supported them last year, but she won’t do it this year because the President would sign it and they don’t want to give him a victory that he can claim for the next election.”
In today’s cultural climate, Loudermilk said even the “most innocuous things” end up being used as political cudgels.
“We’ve got some folks out there who generally hate me just because I’m a Christian, conservative Republican, white male,” he said. “I’m called ‘racist’ on a daily basis, anybody that knows me, that’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Indeed, Loudermilk claims to be a victim of racist organizations himself, alleging that a white supremacist group left him a message in his mailbox several years ago.
“I’ve actually been threatened by the Ku Klux Klan here in Cartersville when I first moved here," he said. "Why? Because I stated that I believe everybody was created equal and that we’re all endowed by God with the same rights, it don’t matter what the color of your skin is.”
In contemporary American society, Loudermilk said he believes the word “racism” has lost its true meaning, stating the term is now used as a mere “political tool against somebody who is doing something we don’t like.”
Naturally, the discussion of contentious domestic politics circled back to Trump.
“The problem we have with the President, because he is so unconventional, he doesn’t have a lot of filter and he actually just says things that a lot of people would think them, without really thinking through what unintended consequences could be of that,” Loudermilk said.
Yet he said he does not believe the commander-in-chief is a racist, bringing up the controversial comments Trump made about several congresswomen on social media earlier this year.
“With the tweets he did recently, there was really nothing racist in them. In fact, the House passed a resolution condemning him for his ‘racist tweets,’ but there was nothing in the language which was racist,” Loudermilk said. “They actually had to put language in the resolution saying ‘this is what he meant.’”
He also defended Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remarks following the Charlottesville, Virginia violence in 2017.
“He was actually talking, at that moment, about those who were arguing, debating statues of Confederate soldiers and generals,” he said. “He was talking about that there were good people on both sides of that issue, which there are … it is a portion of our history that, if you forget that, you’re destined to repeat it, right?”
Right and left, Loudermilk said the nation's citizenry — regardless of political affiliation — could benefit from dialing down the vitriolic rhetoric.
“I think we have to stop using that inciteful language,” he said. “He is the President of the United States, whether you like it or not, you owe him the respect of that office. You don’t have to like him, you don’t have to like his policies, but it doesn’t do the country any good to continue to demonize each other.”