The cult of mass murders has jolted our moorings as a country, if not the very idea of America. So has the criminal violence in cities exploding since the pandemic hibernation.
Yet 58 percent of households have no gun—a data point of hope amid the bloody tide of gun violence. Most of us in that 58 percent, I suspect, believe that schools, churches, synagogues, malls, stores, and post offices can somehow be restored as safer sites without fear of a psychopath wielding an assault rifle. Congress’s recent gun control law is a starter step. What will it really take to regain normality? For now, entering my neighborhood supermarket, I nod appreciatively to the security person realizing that s/he would likely fall to an intruder with an AK 47.
New Orleans, where about a third of the 391,000 population lives in poverty, is plagued with crime. Homicides are up 150 percent, with 145 murders as of July 5—the nation's highest murder rate per capita.
The crime story most sickening to me came on May 30. Augustine Greenwood, 80, a grandmother of 15, saw her youngest grandson receive his high school diploma at an auditorium on the Xavier University campus. Minutes later a shoot-out erupted outside. A bullet fired a city block away killed Mrs. Greenwood, standing in the sunlight with her family. Two other people were wounded. Police seized six weapons and later arrested males aged 49, 48, 18, and 15 on various charges.
Seeking a reference-frame on gun violence I got in touch with two seasoned sources from past political reporting, men from different backgrounds, each with a certain moral code that made me curious to get their slant on how America went wrong, and what it might take to regain a stronger culture of safety, a center that will hold.
Larry Preston Williams Sr., 73, is African American, a retired security consultant and long-ago New Orleans police detective. Neil Curran, 80, is white, a semi-retired Evangelical minister for the Bible Church in metro Dallas. Curran was a New Orleans political consultant years ago.
Williams and Curran have never met. I got to know them in 1989 when David Duke, a closet Nazi, won election to the state legislature from a white suburb of New Orleans. Their children attended the same private school, a few years apart, while the fathers worked against Duke; his star sank after a gripping 1991 gubernatorial campaign.
I kept in touch with them as years passed. Circling back recently for interviews, I see the road that each man traveled across the ensuing years as emblematic of the country’s fault lines over gun violence and religion.
“Street violence in New Orleans is off the charts,” says Larry Williams, who shares an info-mill with other ex-NOPD veterans. They catch up mainly at funerals now.
“When I was doing street patrol in the late ’60s, it was rare to be shot at by a criminal,” Williams tells The Daily Beast. “Back then, most of the violent crime was not by teenagers. Today young people are more involved in fatal and non-fatal shootings. It goes back to the availability of guns on the street.”
Williams graduated from St. Augustine, the premier Catholic high school for Black boys in New Orleans. Dean Baquet, the retiring New York Times executive editor, is a St. Aug graduate. So is Jon Batiste, the much younger multiple Grammy winner and departing bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Williams entered the police academy in 1966, studying nights at Loyola New Orleans, eventually earning a B.S. in criminology.
“Today they’re using more powerful guns and are much less concerned with consequences. It’s easier to buy a gun than a pack of cigarettes. In a lot of tough neighborhoods, if you want a semi-automatic pistol or revolver, there’s typically a guy hanging out at such and such a bar. You give him cash. Or barter for heroin. Or a bag of weed. He goes off, you have a beer, he comes back with the piece. The pistol of choice is the semiautomatic. It takes longer to load a revolver.”
America has 50 million more guns than its 344.4 million people—a figure stratospherically beyond that of any other country.
"Some people buy guns out of fear," says Williams. "But you have to look at the disproportionate amount of violence that impacts Black people who live in areas where guns circulate in an underground economy. How do all those guns end up in these streets? It's a spillover from the national market in weapons. We're oversaturated."
Williams’ son and daughter, both with good careers, live in small Southern towns. “They left New Orleans because of the crime. They ended up in pleasant places. Semirural areas with a lot of Baptists and Evangelicals. The people are friendly. Low crime rates. I haven’t detected much racism. In New Orleans that’s a big issue for Blacks."
NOPD is severely short-staffed, about 900 officers instead of 1,600 needed. Morale is low, despite Mayor LaToya Cantrell's proposed $5,000 retention bonus; recruitment is a huge problem.
Carjackings have surged; the worst saw a woman, 73, die after her arm was severed as thugs took the car.
"I see the news every day," says Williams. "But I can’t leave New Orleans. Too many friends. I like the food, the music, and the people, though some of them are crazy.”
Neil Curran left New Orleans for some of the same reasons that Williams’ grown children later did. As an Evangelical minister in greater Dallas he has done missionary work in Haiti, China, and Africa. His son is a Bible Church pastor in the same area. Curran is CEO of a charity, Biblical Communications International, which does media training for church leaders and includes his newsletter, Spiritual Currancy.
Curran considers the spread of mass shootings a fundamentally spiritual crisis. “I think it's evil. The people are influenced by a being who has been successful—the devil, Satan, whatever you want to call the force that convinces people he doesn't exist. You look at the killers’ backgrounds, what led them to acts of terror—are they crazy or enraptured by evil thoughts? In terms of the country, that’s a big question. There has been a long war against God in America.”
Curran came to this position quite slowly. Raised Irish Catholic in Holyoke, Massachusetts, he studied Southern literature at LSU in Baton Rouge where he met the New Orleans coed who became his wife. He spent four years at a Madison Avenue ad agency, after which they moved back to her hometown. In the ’70s he worked as a political consultant: polling, strategy, media buys for Democratic campaigns. He supported George McGovern for president over Richard Nixon in 1972.
But by then, he says, “I’d been drifting spiritually for several years." The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion “troubled me in ways I could not quite articulate.” He visited a Fellowship Bible Church and began scripture study. In time, “I experienced an awakening of Jesus as savior.” He became an Evangelical, and in the mid-’80s won election to the Louisiana Republican Party state central committee.
Curran's turning point came in 1989 when the telegenic David Duke renounced his background as a Ku Klux Klan leader and as a new-born Republican narrowly won a state house seat. Aghast, Curran saw Duke as a charlatan from the get-go. Curran found an ally in Elizabeth Rickey, another GOP state committee member. Beth Rickey researched Duke’s mail-order book business, which sold fraudulent works alleging a global Jewish conspiracy and books promoting the Holocaust as a myth. Rickey bought hate books at Duke’s district office and showed them at a press conference, blasting Duke.
Much as Rep. Liz Cheney put her Wyoming re-election at risk by taking the high ground against Donald Trump in the House Jan. 6 hearings, Rickey and Curran clashed with Louisiana’s party leadership in seeking to oust Duke as a Republican. At that they lost. Duke’s attacks on affirmative action, with crime making headlines in New Orleans, made him an overnight local cult figure, the guy standing up against Blacks.
Those events didn’t surprise Larry Williams. By the late ’80s he had left NOPD and was doing well as a security consultant for businesses and opposition research for political campaigns, including one of Duke’s 1989 opponents. The New York Times described Williams as “a model of decorum, given to three-piece suits and understatement.”
Nothing about Duke had really changed, in Williams' view, except the packaging. And behind him, Williams knew, lay a core of Klan people.
Curran took a more religious view: “I saw Duke twisting the cross of Jesus into the swastika of the Nazis."
Duke became a political celebrity on national talk shows whose hosts didn’t research his links to Nazi groups and let him hog airtime insisting that he had changed. In Louisiana, his Nazi ties became a slowly surfacing media narrative. In 1990 he lost a U.S. Senate race but pulled a surprising 46 percent of the vote, despite Tyler Bridges' reports in the Times-Picayune that Duke had given parties celebrating Hitler's birthday.
From his background producing TV spots, Curran saw Duke, as cool as the other side of the pillow, telegraphing a message to Whites that as an ex-Klan wizard he would make life hard for African Americans. As stories about Duke's neo-Nazi links gained momentum, Curran wondered how much information people needed to see him as a fraud.
In 1991, Duke sacrificed his state house seat to run for governor, making the runoff with Edwin Edwards, a Democrat vying for a comeback and fourth term. A slick Cajun who had prevailed at two corruption trials in the ’80s, Edwards was nakedly cynical on the environment, allowing his brothers and cronies to profit on toxic waste at unregulated landfills. In an oil-producing state, the waste pits made barely a dent with his blue-collar, biracial base. A bumper stick said it all: Vote for the Crook. It’s important. The runoff became an international news event.
Neil Curran loved New Orleans for the floral beauty, friendships, and festive folkways, but he was done with the political swamp. “I decided to follow a call to ministry. I was set to enroll at the Dallas Theological Seminary, center of the storm in the Southern Baptist scriptural debates, when Duke made the runoff against Edwards.”
For Curran, Duke was demonic, promoting himself as a pro-life Christian. Curran organized a group of Evangelical ministers to meet with Duke, men whose congregations had people uneasy at best over race relations. Curran briefed the preachers on Duke’s hate-books list. In a stunning disconnect, Evangelicals supported the Holy Land, Israel, the Jewish state—a key target of Duke’s hatred.
When Curran and the pastors sat down with Duke, they asked when he had found Jesus. “At age 13,” he said. How did he explain all those years of cross-burnings, hate literature, Hitler birthday parties? Answer: “Oh, I backslid”—the fundamentalists’ term for sinful weakness, like a man sleeping with a woman not his wife, the alcoholic stealing a drink. But twenty-five years of backsliding? The meeting ended uneventfully.
Duke lost in a landslide to Edwards’ 61 percent. The world sighed: Louisiana defeated the Nazi. But Duke's 602,000 votes—55 percent of white support despite coverage of his Nazi past—constituted a middle-finger to the rest of the world. Duke was soon a spent force, serving 15 months in federal prison for mail fraud, bilking supporters of donations he used at casino crap tables; but his racially-inflamed base would expand behind Donald Trump, who won 58.5 percent against Joe Biden in 2020.
Neil Curran found Texas welcoming; After scripture studies, he became a Bible Church pastor. Unlike New Orleans, Dallas is one of America’s wealthiest urban areas; the national myth of endless space seems ever capable of regeneration. Oil wealth spun off fortunes in computers, real estate, and financial services, producing office towers, retail outlets, and homes, homes, homes. The prairie landscape between Dallas and Fort Worth has filled with shopping malls and expanding small towns. Dallas has one of America's largest Catholic dioceses, and the two-city area is a quilt of Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Baptist churches.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Republican-majority legislature are long allied with the NRA. The border with Mexico is a scapegoat of Texas politics, the specter of brown “rapists” and “drug dealers” in Trump’s rhetoric. Texas, with a creed of unregulated markets, including gun sales, has had seven of the 30 deadliest mass shootings in America, according to the Gun Violence Project.
Dallas with 1.3 million people took a different approach to crime than the NRA agenda of arming people to fight back. Since Police Chief Eddie Garcia implemented a 2021 plan, Dallas has recorded 100 fewer robberies than at this point last year. Garcia pushed “a wide-ranging collaboration between city agencies to address apartment complex-specific issues like blight, lighting, park access, and homelessness,” as Bloomberg reported, ‘to engage individuals who are at a high risk of being a victim of a crime or perpetuating one themselves.”
Dallas’s murder rate has dropped 13 percent; Austin’s has risen 86 percent.
“My faith isn’t in the Republican Party, though I tend to vote that way since Ronald Reagan in 1980,” says Curran. “That was more practical than anything, I thought Carter didn't get it. I'm certainly conservative.”
Unlike his view of Duke as demonic, Curran sees Trump as a Machiavellian figure. "A lot of things he did to capture the Evangelical base were political and not heartfelt; he did what was politically necessary. I don't blame him, everybody does that running for office. His agenda, I mostly liked; the style I did not like, the arrogance and mean-spiritedness were way overboard.”
On the paradox of Evangelicals, anchored in a scriptural morality, throwing heavy support to Trump after many women accused him of sexual abuse, Curran is restrained. “I wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with Trump; he seems to be a pretty self-centered guy. But from what I've read, and he seems to have done, I think he mellowed in the presidency and maybe changed due to Evangelicals like Mike Pompeo (the former Secretary of State) and others around him. That’s encouraging."
In Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation—a book Curran had not read—Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor at Calvin University, writes, “From the Cold War to the present, evangelicals have perceived the American nation as vulnerable. Tough, aggressive militant men must defend ‘her.’ The border is the line of defense, a site of danger rather than a place of hospitality. What started as a backlash against hippies, antiwar protestors, civil rights activists, and urban minorities evolved into a veneration of law enforcement and the military.”
America has become the world capital of mass murder as sociopaths buy military weapons on a free market in guns that the Supreme Court shows scant interest in regulating. The Evangelicals are a complex strand of believers, marginalized and not, who gained power as core supporters of Trump. After years of “looking for a protector,” Du Mez writes, they rallied behind Trump, “an aggressive, heroic, manly man, someone who wasn’t restrained by political correctness or feminine virtues, someone who would break the rules for the right cause.”
“If it comes down to a vote between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in 2024, I’m voting for Donald Trump,” says Curran, responding to the passage in the book. “I think she paints Evangelicals with too broad a brush. Charismatics, Pentecostal Christians, and many Blacks are part of the Evangelical camp.”
When asked what he thought about stronger gun laws, Curran evinced a certain ambivalence.
“I’ve never owned a gun personally; my wife had a shotgun from duck-hunting and gave it to her brother 30 years ago. I think the total [deaths and people wounded] of these mass shootings pales in comparison to the violent street crimes in Chicago, South Dallas, or parts of New Orleans. Gun violence is a norm in big cities.”
“Gun restrictions are not the answer,” he continues. Then ambivalence surfaces. “The NRA talks about political implications of governments heading toward totalitarianism—disarm the public so we can't fight back. I’m not sure if I buy it, or not. Would [stricter laws] cause government overreach?” Considering this, he says that the present laws, “aren’t helping people to stop gun violence.”
In another moment, he says, “I don’t think people should get machine guns. I’m not sure that if what people call assault weapons are machine guns. I think they’re OK to be sold. I don’t think the problem is guns. It’s people.”
In resisting a stance on stricter gun laws, Curran keeps circling back to what he sees as root causes of the gun crisis. “America for the first hundred years of our existence was a biblically rooted country. Without that foundation, things get kind of weak. We’ve become a very secular country, taking God out of the equation, failing to teach morals in schools. We’re reaping what we’ve sown.”
The recent Supreme Court decisions reversing Roe v. Wade and affirming the rights of a football coach to lead players in a school prayer give Curran some hope. "You can directly attribute those decisions to Donald Trump who appointed three justices to the Supreme Court."
Larry Preston Williams sees the mass killings and escalating street violence as the result of a moral blindness in Congress and the Supreme Court. For him it's also an economics issue.
“Where is this huge street supply of semiautomatic guns coming from? It’s two degrees of separation from legal ownership. People are arming themselves. Most of these auto burglaries—not carjackings—are solely about guns. Criminals looking for guns. In house burglaries, the first thing they look for is a gun. They’re not breaking in your house to steal your TV or stereo. They know most people don’t keep cash at home. They want guns.”
Williams takes mild comfort in the recent congressional legislation on gun control. He wants more of it—lots more.
"What the hell else makes sense? I didn’t feel threatened as a street cop all those years ago. Look at the line of danger for cops today. I’m what Trump calls one of those left-wing liberals on this issue. Background checks? You bet. Raise the standards of what it takes to buy weapons, period. I can’t see a civilian needing an automatic weapon with a high-capacity magazine. It’s inconsistent with the lifestyle most people lead. You don’t need that to defend your home.
“Having so many guns, people get angry and start shooting. We have a culture of guns that led to a belief among at least some people that you solve your problem with a gun. I think we’re going to see more mass shootings. I don’t think even Dr Phil could tell us why.”
When asked about the Religious Right’s alliance with the NRA in opposing gun control, Williams sounded a note of exasperation.
“To be honest, I’d expect religious conservatives to want a society that makes it hard for criminals and deranged people to get guns, especially military-grade weapons—a society that protects human life. As a Catholic and an ex-cop, I believe in the Ten Commandments, especially the one that says, ‘Thou Shall Not Kill.’ I see a national weapons policy that facilitates the violation of the most sacred of the Ten Commandments. How the hell did we end up here?”
Jason Berry’s latest book, City of a Million Dreams, is the subject of a documentary in which jazz funerals serve as a lens on New Orleans history.