At least seven people are dead and up to thirty have been injured after a gunman opened fire at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in what currently appears to be a racially-motivated attack.
Police say the massacre at the Temple in Oak Creek, a small town near Milwaukee, began shortly after 10am yesterday. One of the fatalities is believed to be the gunman, who was “put down” by officers following a brief shoot-out.
The suspect is believed to be a bald, white male, of heavy build, aged 40. He was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and carrying at least one and maybe two handguns when he arrived at the Temple as worshipers were preparing for their Sunday morning service.
Witnesses say he walked up to a priest standing outside, and opened fire. Then he reloaded his weapons and moved into the building. Four people were eventually found dead inside the Temple, including the gunman, and another three outside.
Bradley Wendtland, the local police chief, said last night that he’s still attempting to establish exactly what happened during the attack. Officers were dispatched to the Temple after receiving multiple 911 calls from terrified people inside.
“An officer arrived and engaged a suspect,” he told reporters. “That officer was shot multiple times. He is expected to survive. The officer exchanged fire with the shooter. That shooter was put down.”
Darshan Dhaliwal, a local Sikh community leader, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that around three dozen women and children survived by hiding in closets in the building’s basement. He added: "this is insanity.”
Ven Boba Ri, one of the Temple’s committee members, said the head priest managed to barricade himself into the Temple’s toilets, before calling for help using his mobile telephone. “It's pretty much a hate crime,” he said. “It's sad. I don't know how to describe it. Sikhism is such a peaceful religion.”
Parminder Kaleka, who was waiting behind police lines outside the temple, hoping for news of relatives still inside, told reporters that she had recently spoken via telephone to a brother-in-law who witnessed the attack.
"He told me 25 or more people got shot, at that time they don't even know if they are dead or alive, so a lot of people got injured. This is a big tragedy for our church.” Her brother-in-law was among the injured, she added.
A motive for the attacks has yet to be fully established, but there are indications that the attacker was attempting to target Muslims and may have mistakenly been under the impression that the Sikh Temple was a Mosque.
In July, a Wisconsin State Representative, Josh Zepnick, had visited the Temple with to discuss what he called “public safety” issues with the Sikh community. A news release he issued immediately after the meeting observed that, in the US, Sikhs are often confused with Muslims.
As a result, that news release said, they are frequently victims of Islamophobic attacks. "The Sikh community is a strong and positive force within Milwaukee's diverse ethnic population," stressed Zepnick.
The incident comes just over a fortnight after the Aurora shooting, in which 12 people were killed and 58 injured after a gunman opened fire at a screening of the new Batman film, in a suburb of Denver. It seems likely to add to pressure for a public debate over US gun laws, which are the most relaxed in the developed world.
It will also place a spotlight on the state of community relations in Wisconsin, which is hugely politically polarised amid ongoing conflict between Democratic activists and the state’s Governor, Scott Walker, a tea-party favourite who has dramatically cut public services and who recently defeated an effort to unseat him during a recall election.