AFP - Residents of the small southern US town of Carthage were in shock Monday after a heavily-armed gunman shot dead eight people, many elderly and sick patients of a nursing home.
Authorities said the alleged 45-year-old gunman, identified as Robert Stewart, was in custody.
But they shed no light on why he went on a shooting spree at the 90-bed Pine Lake nursing home in Carthage, North Carolina, which has a population of just 2,000 people about 20 kilometers from the US Army's Fort Bragg.
"This morning a lone gunman came to the Pine Lake nursing home in Carthage and as a result of his actions today, he is facing eight counts of first degree murder," said Maureen Krueger, the Moore County district attorney.
She said the victims included a 98-year-old patient, four victims in their 80s, two in their 70s, and a nurse.
Nursing home resident Helen Olive told The Fayetteville Observer that she ducked behind her bed and used her cell phone to dial the police emergency line after hearing the first gunshots.
"I'm used to guns with my brothers hunting and everything. I said, ‘Oh, my God, there ain't supposed to be a gun in here,'" she said.
After phoning the police, she crawled into her bathroom and hid behind the shower curtain as the gunshots "just kept going."
"I was so scared I thought I was going to have a heart attack," she said.
Carthage Police Officer Justin Garner was the first officer on the scene. He confronted Stewart in the hallway, and both men fired their weapons, said Carthage Police Chief Chris McKenzie.
Both men were wounded in the exchange. Garner was treated for a gunshot wound in the leg and released. Stewart is still being treated for gunshot wounds. His condition is unknown.
Krueger said Garner acted "in nothing short of a heroic way today. But for his actions we certainly could have had a worse tragedy."
The killings stunned Carthage, the seat of a bucolic south central North Carolina county. Officials said at a press conference that the town has a police force of 18, only two of whom were on duty at the time of the violence.
McKenzie said he had never encountered anything like in 20 years as a police officer.
"I don't know that the emotion has entirely set in," he said. "This is a small community built on faith and faith will get us through."
He said the Red Cross and the county department of social services and mental health were providing help to families of the victims and the staff of the nursing home, and the town's First Baptist Church had opened its doors to those affected by the tragedy.
At least six people were taken to the First Health Moore Regional Hospital, where two died, a hospital spokeswoman said. Two of the injured were treated and released, two others were hospitalized, said Emily Sloan.
The carnage is the latest to rock small town America, which often has borne the brunt of outbursts of gun violence, but where many inhabitants fiercely advocate the right to own and carry guns.
Earlier this month, a 28-year-old unemployed man killed 10 people, including his mother and a toddler, in a shooting rampage through two counties in Alabama, the worst in the southern state's history.
In December, a man dressed as Santa Claus opened fire at a Christmas party being given by his ex-wife in Covina, California, killing nine people before shooting himself.
In October, an ex-convict opened fire with an assault rifle at a man and two children who had come to trick or treat at his home in Sumter, South Carolina on Halloween. A 12-year-old boy died of his wounds in that incident.
In September, a mentally ill man shot eight people, killing six, in Alger, Washington a month after being released from prison.
There are constant calls for US gun laws, tied to the second amendment of the US Constitution guaranteeing the right to bear arms, to be re-examined.
But they falter in the face of opposition from the powerful gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association.