TODAY, the Luby's Cafeteria here - scene of the nation's worst mass shooting - reopens for business.
"I think they'll pack them in," says the Rev. Raymond Smith, who counseled survivors and family members of the tragedy. He himself plans to attend the opening, which he regards as a step in the community healing process. "The great multitude of our people are anxious for them to open up and get on with life," Mr. Smith explains.
Around noon of last Oct. 16, a man with no previous criminal record and two legally purchased semi-automatic pistols rammed his pickup through the glass wall of the restaurant. He fatally shot 23 people and wounded 20 others before killing himself. At one blow the town of 70,000 lost twice as many citizens as a neighboring military base, Fort Hood, lost in Operation Desert Storm.
When a similar tragedy struck at a McDonald's in southern California in 1984, the restaurant was razed and the land turned into a memorial park. But at the Luby's head offices in San Antonio, executives heeded the urging of Killeen residents to reopen. "It shows that the community is willing to look that tragedy directly in the eye," says Police Chief F. L. Giacommozi. The killer, adds Smith, "is not going to have the last word on how we're going to live. We're going to enjoy life, and Luby's is part of the enjoyment of this community."
So earlier this week, pots and pans were banging in the Luby's kitchen as new cooks were trained. A $350,000 renovation has replaced everything from carpet to ceiling tiles, transforming the scene of the crime. An extra emergency exit will comfort patrons who remember having no escape during the 15-minute rampage.
Pro-handgun activists have argued that if Texas did not outlaw concealed weapons, someone among the 150 Luby's diners might have been prepared to stop the gunman. They mention the example of Thomas Terry. An Alabama postal clerk, Mr. Terry has a sheriff's permit to carry a concealed handgun. He was doing so last December, when armed robbers took over the Shoney's restaurant where he and his wife were dining.
The robbers began herding the diners in two groups to the kitchen. As Terry passed an emergency exit he tried to open it; it was locked. But the alarm sounded, causing the robber guarding his group to flee. Terry left the other diners and went looking for his wife, who was in the other group. Suddenly, he found himself alone with another robber, who drew a bead on him. Terry drew his own gun and traded shots. He was grazed; the robber fell, wounded. A third robber appeared and aimed at Terry, who shot th e robber fatally.
Ordinary citizen saving the day? Hardly. Terry was a paratrooper in Vietnam, who as point man on his patrol experienced firefights and one-on-one combat. He stays in practice at a local shooting range, firing some hundred rounds a week.
"Early on, it was just out of the question to even think about going for my gun. I would have got a lot of people hurt," he says. "It was just a 1,000-to-1 chance of everything coming into line where I could use my firearm."
Terry strongly believes in the right of citizens to defend themselves, but he also favors an effective national background check and a waiting period for buying guns.
He will get his wish if the Senate ever passes the omnibus crime bill. That legislation contains the "Brady bill" mandating a five-working-day waiting period and a background check.
California imposes a background check. The law prevented 6,000 criminals from buying guns last year. But states like Texas only make gun purchasers assert that they are not a felon, fugitive, or drug abuser on a form that the gun store files away.
"Joe Felon just laughs and writes 'no, says Susan Whitmore, a spokesperson for Handgun Control Inc., which lobbies for the Brady bill. "It's the honor system for criminals."