When a man walked into an El Paso, Texas department store with an AK-47 rifle and began gunning down shoppers Saturday, Upper Yoder Township resident Lonnie Luna had no idea his daughter was driving toward the massacre.

That shocking realization, he said, was followed by a welcomed text message:

“Don’t worry, I’m OK,” his daughter, Liana, wrote, noting that she was stopped and turned around by responders.

But Luna, an El Paso native, said he was jolted just the same by the aftermath – and the realization someone hunted down 22 people in his former hometown.

“El Paso is one of the safest cities in the country – and I have family just five minutes from the location where it occurred,” said Luna, who has spent the past 22 years working as a teacher at Bishop McCort. “If my daughter had left to go shopping 10 minutes sooner, she could’ve been right in the middle of that.”

Luna is a 1978 Notre Dame graduate who spent 24 years in the United States Air Force before retiring as a captain.

He and his wife, Mary, were both born and raised in El Paso and married there in the late 1970s.

They raised their children, Liana and Michael, in the west Texas city before moving east, eventually to Johnstown in the mid-1990s, he said.

Liana, a 2000 Bishop McCort graduate, and two of Mary’s brothers still call El Paso home.

Lonnie Luna said he recognized the familiar suburban shopping center he’s frequented many times during family visits – a high-traffic area that borders the Cielo Vista Shopping Mall – and watched the live news in disbelief “that it was actually happening there.”

“El Paso is a compassionate, loving city. If it happened there ... it could happen anywhere else,” he said.

It’s even more tragic that the city of Dayton learned that within hours, witnessing nine more people gunned down in a busy entertainment district by a man with “violent ideologies,” authorities have said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the El Paso shooting but has already indicated that the 21-year-old armed white man caught on surveillance video inside the store – detailed some of his plans on an extremist website and was targeting Mexicans that day.

It’s the type of trend being repeated across the nation – too often by hateful “white supremacists” against fellow Americans – and it has to stop, said Luna, an American-born citizen of Spanish descent.

“This hate,” Luna added, “is tearing the fabric of our country apart. It’s impacting people everywhere.”

The Upper Yoder man said the nation’s counter-terrorism experts, thankfully, have found success shutting down websites that have served as havens for members of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in recent years.

El Paso gunman Patrick Crusius apparently posted about an effort to “reclaim” America on the message board 8chan – and the controversial website has been a target of critics since as a destination for people who’ve orchestrated attacks on other communities, including a California synagogue in late April.

To Luna, efforts should be doubled down to shut down those sites and those who harbor homegrown, hateful content – just like investigators have done to foreign-born sites.

The retired Air Force captain also said the National Rifle Association “needs to give in,” and lawmakers need to step up to craft gun control reform that reflects today’s times.

“Change has to start from the top,” Luna said. “But I find it amazing that anyone can legally buy a rifle – like an AK-47 – that was meant for combat and then add these long magazines to them.”

Since a 2004 federal law lapsed that outlawed the sales of the AK-47 and other similar guns, they’ve been available for purchase again in most states to people 18 years old and older.

Federal officials have indicated the shooters in both the Dayton and El Paso attacks purchased their rifles legally, after passing criminal background checks.

“Something has to change,” Luna said.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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