Five years have slid past Lafayette since a madman fired 13 rounds from a .40-caliber handgun at his two dozen fellow moviegoers there. Then he reloaded and fired again.
A din of deadly gunshots that hot summer night, long silent, still pains that jewel of a Louisiana city, long after the gunman lay dead by his own hand on the floor of the Grand 16 Theatre. Long after the question “Can it happen here?” was firmly settled, a second question, “Will it ever stop hurting?” holds an answer just as plain: Not yet. If time heals all wounds, Lafayette may need more time yet.
The July 23, 2015 theater shooting on its own did not halt the mojo that had seemed to make Lafayette a daily celebration for 120,000 people that lived there then. A downturn in global oil prices had cast some concern over the energy-centric economy. A flood the next year drove many Acadiana people from their own homes. Deadly shootings involving police, here and in Baton Rouge, still reverberate across South Louisiana. The political climate turned bleak, then stormy. Now, COVID-19.
Does it seem so long ago that Lafayette and its environs were celebrated for their food, music, Cajun and Creole culture and international ties? The city was, by more than one measure, judged to be “the Happiest City in the U.S.A.,” a festive place where so much was going right. That was then.
But what Lafayette lost five years ago was precious to the community. Start with Jillian Johnson, 33, of Lafayette and Mayci Breaux, 21, of Franklin, both fatalities that night. Johnson was an artist, musician and local businesswoman with deep roots in the community. Breaux was a nursing student, and students are treasured in Lafayette, a university and community college town.
The city may have lost, as well, some of the boundless self-confidence it held before that terrifying night in 2015. Those interviewed for a weekend story suggested Lafayette has changed over the last five years — not necessarily for the better — with more divisiveness.
One woman interviewed noted cracks in the community spirit. “You see a microcosm of the nation,” she said, citing unwillingness by some locals to wear masks during the pandemic to protect their neighbors.
One source suggested that Lafayette doesn’t seem to prize its culture or its environment like it did.
Another source, a professor, said local moderates and conservatives seem to “share a disaster narrative.”
All of that lost, and this, too: A city’s innocence, its belief such a tragedy couldn’t happen here. But it did.
Five years back, a local editorial about the mass shooting suggested Lafayette would recover, given time.
More time, maybe.