Congressional Baseball Practice Shooting Puts Spotlight On Political Divide

Jun 15, 2017
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And now what we know about the man who fired on the baseball practice yesterday. Before James Hodgkinson traveled to Virginia, he lived in the town of Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang is in Belleville. He joins us now. And Hansi, what more have you learned about the FBI's investigation into the shooting?

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Well, the FBI has now confirmed that the shooter used a 9-millimeter handgun and a 7.62-caliber rifle. And there's no evidence so far that they were purchased illegally. The FBI has also found a cell phone, computer and a camera in a white van that they say he's been living - he had been living in since March. It was parked across from the scene of the shooting. And investigators are still canvassing Alexandria, Va., and also here in Belleville, Ill.

CORNISH: In the meantime, I understand you've actually spoken to some people who might have known him.

WANG: Yeah, I've talked to some folks, and they say that they're surprised that this happened. And certainly we know that he had a criminal record that shows that he's faced a charge of battery which was later dropped. And then one neighbor told us that he and his family kept to themselves. I spoke to one person who lives in the area, Marilyn Blaha, who says she knew him professionally years ago, says her brother was still a friend. And she was shocked by the news, says it was totally unexpected. And she thinks that the community here will rally to support his family. Here's what she said.

MARILYN BLAHA: I think it kind of brings people together if anything, you know? I think they'll support his family. And people are pretty good around here. They won't look down on the fact that he, you know, he did wrong. I think that they'll come together for his family.

CORNISH: And I'm sure you're not the only reporter in Belleville, right? It's put a spotlight on this town. What's it like there?

WANG: Well, it's a small town, and parts of it are still pretty rural. Near the shooter's home, it's lots of farmland, acres of corn and soybean fields, lots of farmhouses. And the county that I'm in right now, St. Clair County, is politically purple. And there have been protests against President Donald Trump on the main street here. And back in November, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by a few thousand votes, so it was very close. And there are a lot of GOP voters here.

And this county is surrounded by really Trump country. And to get a better sense of this and just what the climate is, I stopped by a local softball league game last night, spoke to some people there. And the people there say, you know, despite these local splits here, locally, it doesn't divide - they don't divide them personally. And I met a man and a woman who said that they don't agree on President Donald Trump, but they're still friends.

CORNISH: Are they saying anything about the town's connection to the shooting itself?

WANG: Well, at this point, you know, it's important to stress that we do not know exactly the shooter's motive. But people here are wondering, you know, how much the political divide currently in the country has to do with what happened. And we know that the shooter was politically active. He wrote letters to the local paper's editor, took part in Occupy Wall Street protests. But again, the investigation is still ongoing, and the FBI is asking for tips from the public to find out more about the motive and people he may have met before the shooting took place.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang in Belleville, Ill. Hansi, thank you.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.