US president Donald Trump on Monday said the Texas shooting that killed 26 people was a "mental health problem at the highest level" and that guns were not to blame.
"We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, but this isn't a gun situation," he said, describing the gunman as "deranged".
At least 26 people died when a gunman dressed all in black and wearing body amour launched a bloody assault on a Baptist church in Texas, opening fire from outside its neat, white walls before walking inside.
In just a few minutes the man, later identified as 26-year-old Devin Kelley, brought the plague of gun violence to small-town America, cutting down half of a congregation in a small, tight-knit community.
Officials said the victims ranged in age from five to 72.
President Donald Trump denounced the killings as “an act of evil” and said he was being kept up to date with developments as he toured Asia.
The attack in Sutherland Springs only came to an end when a neighbour, alerted by the sound of gunfire, raced to the scene and engaged the suspect with his own rifle, according to a version of events described by Freeman Martin, of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The shooter dropped a Ruger assault rifle at the scene and drove away. His escape ended at the county line.
“He ran off the roadway and crashed. He was found deceased in his vehicle,” said Mr Martin, who added it was not clear whether he died from a gunshot wound inflicted by the pursuer or some other cause.
Locals rushed to the First Baptist Church fearing the worst in a town of fewer than 400 people, where everybody knows each other. Some joined hands and prayed as emergency services went about their work, recovering bodies from inside and outside the church and taking the wounded to hospital.
As details began circulating of the dead or wounded, a picture emerged of a congregation made up of families.
Sherri Pomeroy, the wife of the church’s pastor, said their daughter was killed while she and her husband were out of town for the weekend.
“We lost our 14-year-old daughter today and many friends," she said. "Neither of us have made it back into town yet to personally see the devastation."
A six-year-old boy was shot four times and was last night undergoing emergency surgery.
Albert Gamez, Wilson County commissioner, told CNN: “My heart is broken. We never think where it can happen, and it does happen. It doesn't matter where you're at. In a small community, real quiet and everything, and look at this, what can happen.”
The shock swept through a town in rural south-east Texas that comprises little more than a post office, a dollar store and two churches.
Previous mass shootings
— Oct 1, 2017: A gunman identified by authorities as Stephen Paddock opened fire on an outdoor music festival on the Las Vegas Strip from the 32nd floor of a hotel-casino, killing 58 people and wounding more than 500. SWAT teams with explosives then stormed his room and found he had killed himself.
— June 12, 2016: Gunman Omar Mateen opened fire at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub, killing 49 people. Mateen was later killed in a shoot-out with police.
— Feb 25, 2016: Cedric Ford, 38, killed three people and wounded 14 others at a lawnmower factory where he worked in the central Kansas community of Hesston. The local police chief killed him during a shoot-out with 200 to 300 workers still in the building, authorities said.
— Feb 20, 2016: Jason Dalton, 45, is accused of randomly shooting and killing six people and severely wounding two others during a series of attacks over several hours in the Kalamazoo, Michigan, area. Authorities say he paused between shootings to make money as an Uber driver. He faces murder and attempted-murder charges.
— Dec 2, 2015: Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, opened fire at a social services centre in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people and wounding more than 20. They fled the scene but died hours later in a shoot-out with police.
— Oct 1, 2015: A shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, left 10 people dead and seven wounded. Shooter Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, exchanged gunfire with police, then killed himself.
— June 17, 2015: Dylann Roof, 21, shot and killed nine African-American church members during a Bible study group inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Police contend the attack was racially motivated. Roof has been sentenced to death in the shootings.
— May 23, 2014: A community college student, Elliot Rodger, 22, killed six people and wounded 13 in shooting and stabbing attacks in the area near the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus. Authorities said he apparently shot himself to death after a gun battle with deputies.
— Sept 16, 2013: Aaron Alexis, a mentally disturbed civilian contractor, shot 12 people to death at the Washington Navy Yard before he was killed in a police shoot-out.
— July 26, 2013: Pedro Vargas, 42, went on a shooting rampage at his Hialeah, Florida, apartment building, gunning down six people before officers fatally shot him.
— Dec 14, 2012: In Newtown, Connecticut, an armed 20-year-old man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 26 people, including 20 first-graders and six adult school staff members. He then killed himself.
— Sept 27, 2012: In Minnesota's deadliest workplace rampage, Andrew Engeldinger, who had just been fired, pulled a gun and fatally shot six people, including the company's founder. He also wounded two others at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis before taking his own life.
— Aug 5, 2012: In Oak Creek, Wisconsin, 40-year-old gunman Wade Michael Page killed six worshippers at a Sikh Temple before killing himself.
— July 20, 2012: James Holmes, 27, fatally shot 12 people and injured 70 in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
— April 2, 2012: Seven people were killed and three were wounded when a 43-year-old former student opened fire at Oikos University in Oakland, California. One Goh was charged with seven counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder, but psychiatric evaluations concluded he suffered from long-term paranoid schizophrenia and was unfit to stand trial.
“This is horrific for our tiny little tight-knit town,” said Alena Berlanga. “Everybody's going to be affected and everybody knows someone who's affected.”
Mr Trump addressed the shooting during a pre-arranged appearance in Japan.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families,” he said. “In dark times Americans do what they do best, we pull together, we join hands, we lock arms and, through the tears and through the sadness, we stand strong, oh so strong.”
The death toll makes it the fifth worst in America’s modern history — one fewer than the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. And it comes barely a month after a gunman shot dead 58 people attending a Country music festival in Las Vegas and will prompt fresh calls for gun control.
Texas has some of the most relaxed laws in the country, and anyone over 18 can buy long guns — rifles or shotguns — without a permit so long as they have a clean criminal record.
Greg Abbott, Texas governor, said it was the worst shooting in the state’s history.
“The tragedy, of course, is worsened by the fact it occurred in a church, a place of worship, where these people were innocently gunned down,” he said at an evening briefing. “We mourn their loss.”
He added that counselling services would be made available to anyone who needed them.
Special agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as an FBI crisis response team were helping local police begin their investigation, as officers searched the crime scene and probing for a motive.
Officials said they were scouring Kelley’s social media presence as they sought a motive and local media reported that his house was being searched.
Investigators may be aided with video footage from inside the church.
The congregation’s YouTube page features complete recordings of services from the past three years. They show a small community at prayer, with flowers beside the altar and hymns accompanied by guitars.
Joe Tackitt, Wilson County Sheriff, said small towns were not immune to gun violence.
“We know what happened today,” he said. “It’s something we say does not happen in small communities. We found out today it does.”
Megan Posey, a spokeswoman for Connally Memorial Medical Centre, about 10 miles from the church, said multiple victims were being treated for gunshot wounds. She declined to give a specific number but said it was fewer than a dozen.
Victims were also being taken to an army medical centre.
Frank Buford, of the nearby River Oaks Church, said the residents would support each other.
“We’re holding up as well as we can — we are a strong community, we are strong in our faith,” he told local reporters.