Shannon Watts was devastated when she woke up Sunday and saw the news.
Her family had moved to Kansas City, Kansas, in the late 1990s. It wasn’t considered an up-and-coming area, but it felt safe. Watts, a University of Missouri graduate who worked at the Mid-America Regional Council, said her son was born in the city and her children went to elementary school at a local Catholic church.
They lived in Kansas City for several years, she said. It has a special place in her heart.
That’s why she was so hurt to learn that two gunmen allegedly killed four people and wounded five others inside Tequila KC, a bar less than two miles from where she once lived. But Watts, now the face of one of the nation’s largest gun violence prevention organizations in America, had seen it before.
“It’s just devastating that our lax gun laws have led to this consistent violence, in city centers in particular,” Watts said.
Watts started Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, and the nonprofit now has nearly six million supporters. She has been called the National Rifle Association’s worst nightmare.
After the bar shooting, some questioned why judges had let the alleged shooters escape prison or jail time in previous cases. Others wondered whether an armed guard who was supposed to work that night, but didn’t show, could have stopped the rampage, or if police officers who visited the bar hours before the shooting could have done more.
But Watts and other gun safety activists argue the problem is the availability of firearms.
“This is the logical outcome of incredibly lax gun laws in the state,” Watts said in an interview with The Star, calling Kansas’ gun laws some of the weakest in the country.
Watts is among the activists who have demanded stricter gun-control legislation in Kansas in the wake of the shooting, which spurred calls for national action from several Democrats running for president.
It remained unclear Saturday where the suspected shooters, 29-year-old Hugo Villanueva-Morales and 23-year-old Javier Alatorre, obtained the handguns they allegedly used when they walked into the bar near 10th Street and Central Avenue. The Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department did not return a call or email asking about the weapons.
Villanueva-Morales remained at large. Alatorre was arrested Sunday in Kansas City, Missouri.
In Kansas, citizens 21 and older can carry concealed firearms regardless of whether they have obtained a permit. When then-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed the bill into law in 2015, he said Kansans “don’t have to get the permission slip” from the government to carry out their constitutional rights.
Permit-less carry took affect two years later in Missouri.
After the bar shooting Sunday, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who was endorsed by Everytown for Gun Safety, said she continued to be frustrated by the frequency of mass killings.
“Our nation has an obligation to address this ongoing public health crisis,” she said in a statement.
Kelly has called herself a supporter of the Second Amendment for residents who hunt and want to keep their loved ones safe. She also has supported requiring background checks on every gun sale and red flag laws, which allow people to obtain a judge’s order to temporarily take firearms from those considered an imminent threat.
At least 17 states have some form of red flag laws, most of which were passed after the killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers in Kansas recently expressed opposition to the laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders, saying they were not the answer to stopping “deranged individuals” intent on killing.
Earlier this month, 31 members of the Kansas House of Representatives and six state senators signed a letter asking President Donald Trump to oppose red flag laws. While mass killings must end, they said, they believed the laws could be used to violate constitutional rights and breach due process of the accused.
“We must not emotionally resort to rash policies destructive of constitutional rights,” the officials said in the letter, adding that most issues can’t be fixed by the federal government. “If our citizens want red flag laws, then they will elect legislators who will enact their will.”
Watts and other gun safety advocates, including Judy Sherry, head of the Kansas City-based group Grandparents Against Gun Violence, called on Kansans to do just that.
“They have done nothing but loosened gun laws,” Sherry said of Kansas lawmakers.
Sherry said it appeared neither Villanueva-Morales or Alatorre would have passed a background check or been able to obtain a firearm legally if Kansas had red flag laws.
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, one of the lawmakers who signed the letter, recently told The Star’s editorial board that Kansas already has a law that makes it is illegal for anyone convicted of domestic violence to own or possess a firearm. The question, he said, should be: “Why aren’t our current laws being enforced?”
Neither of the two suspects had been convicted of domestic violence in Kansas or Missouri, according to a search of public records.
Acknowledging that no one law alone would stop shootings, which continue to plague the Kansas City region, Watts said studies have shown that stricter laws have been tied to fewer gun deaths.
“This isn’t rocket science,” Watts said. “The solutions exist; they have to enact them. They have to choose their constituents’ safety over gun manufacturer’s profits.”
‘I don’t ever want to come back’
Inside the bar, patrons danced under red, blue and green flashing lights.
Jose Valdez, one of the bartenders, poured drinks.
For one of the slain victims, it was his first time at Tequila KC, frequent bargoers said.
Villanueva-Morales and Alatorre entered the bar, walked through the crowd of about 40 patrons and fired shots at specific people inside, according to police and surveillance video viewed by The Star. As they left, the men continued shooting into the crowd, interim Police Chief Michael York said.
People could be seen hitting the floor.
“The video is so gruesome,” said Amanda Holman, 39, of Kansas City, Kansas.
One of Holman’s relatives was among the wounded. A bullet punctured one of his lungs. He was recovering at a hospital under a different name because one of the alleged shooters has not been captured, she said.
Ana Medina, owner of Casa de Modas Aleman, a business near the bar that sells dresses for weddings and Quineñeras, was blocks away when she heard the repeated gunshots. The front window of Medina’s business displays a pamphlet asking for tips in another killing, the 2017 fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy.
Medina later learned the gunfire came from inside Tequila KC, which she said she has complained about before because of nearby fights and drug activity. She now hopes the city shuts the bar down.
The bar’s owner has not responded to numerous requests for comment.
Even if the bar remains open, some patrons have said they are unsure if they can ever go back. Celeste Trevino, who was dancing with her close friend, 29-year-old Everardo “Ever” Meza, before he was killed, told reporters she struggled to be at a vigil behind the bar more than 20 hours after the shooting.
“I don’t ever want to come back here,” she said through tears.
Chain of events
Several things, if they had gone differently, could have kept the alleged shooters from being at the bar that morning.
In August 2018, Villanueva-Morales pleaded guilty to trafficking contraband in the Lansing Correctional Facility, where he was serving time for a 2011 aggravated robbery. A judge could have sentenced him to nine years in prison, but instead gave Villanueva-Morales two years of probation — over the objections of prosecutors.
But while prosecutors had argued for prison, Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson said this week there was “no way anyone could foresee this horrific tragedy” based on the conviction for possessing synthetic marijuana in prison.
Last month, Alatorre, who has three pending felony criminal cases in Jackson County related to drugs, fleeing from police and tampering with a vehicle, was released from jail after a judge granted his request for a reduced bond.
In July, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered new rules regarding bond, requiring judges to first consider non-monetary conditions of release, require money only if necessary and only at an amount needed to ensure safety and the defendant’s appearance in court. The Jackson County jail has suffered from overcrowding for years.
Hours before the shooting, officers were called to the bar for a disturbance caused by one of the suspects, who reportedly threatened to come back. But not finding him, they left, police said.
Valdez, the bartender, has expressed concern that the officers who responded didn’t take the disturbance seriously enough. It’s unclear what was said to police or how much they could have known of the risk.
The bar also usually has an armed security guard at the door, Valdez said. But that person didn’t show up Saturday.
Even had the guard been there, he could have been killed, said Sherry, one of the gun safety advocates.
Time and again, Watts said, other incidents have shown that armed guards don’t prevent mass shootings. She pointed to the slaying of 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, where an off-duty officer was working security.
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, who represents Wyandotte and Johnson counties as well as parts of Miami County, said the shooting left her heartbroken. Reached for comment, Davids’ office said she has announced support for red flag laws and a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.
After mass shootings earlier this year left more than 30 people dead in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Davids called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring to the Senate floor bills that supporters say would require universal background checks and close loopholes in firearm sales.
“It’s time for our leaders to do right by our communities, by our children and families and stand up to the gun lobby once and for all,” Davids said. “We cannot sit idly by while more innocent lives are ripped away by gun violence.”
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said the Kansas shooting was a reminder that elected officials have made excuses for their inaction.
“Their decisions have a body count,” he said.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How we did this story
Several journalists from The Star have reported on the shooting at the Tequila KC bar, and the newspaper has published numerous stories about it since it occurred Sunday. This week a reporter gathered comments from lawmakers, activists, witnesses and others about what happened and how it could have been prevented. The reporter drew information from law enforcement reports and court records.
Deadliest Kansas shooting since 2016
Mass shootings make up a small fraction of killings in America, including in the Kansas City region.
During a news conference Monday, Mayor David Alvey noted that Kansas City, Kansas, has seen a 14 percent decrease in homicides across the city in the last several years. Alvey did not respond to a request for further comment this week.
Still, Sunday’s shooting was the deadliest in Kansas since 2016, according to the database Gun Violence Archive.
In March of that year, Pablo Antonio Serrano-Vitorino, 40, allegedly stormed into a neighbor’s home in Kansas City, Kansas, and used an AK-47 to gun down four men, two of whom were brothers. He fled into Missouri and fatally shot another man in Montgomery County before he was arrested, police said.
While awaiting trial, he died by suicide at a St. Louis jail.
A month before that shooting spree, an Excel Industries employee used two firearms to carry out shootings that left three people dead and 14 others wounded in Newton and Hesston, about 35 miles north of Wichita, according to police. The suspect, Cedric Ford, was killed by an officer in the manufacturing plant.
Since then, three shootings in Kansas have left three or more people slain, including an April 2017 shooting in Topeka that left four people, including the shooter, dead at an in-home care facility for people with special needs.
Other shootings have wounded numerous people. One in February 2018 in Kansas City, Kansas, left a 27-year-old man dead and seven other people wounded. Police said the gunfire was related to gang activity.