The Texas Siege: Bible and bullets reign

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The Independent Online
IT WAS the utter lack of surprise of Mark Cherry, a gun seller in Waco, that was so surprising. You want an AR-15, a semi-automatic gun that blasts off bullets as fast as you can hit the trigger? Sure, he has one round the back.

'We use them for shooting vermin,' he explained, as he cradled the plastic-barrelled dollars 675 assault rifle in his hands. 'But,' he added, 'there are better weapons than this for hunting humans.'

In this Texan country town, it is as easy to find a high-powered assault weapon as it is to buy a Chevrolet truck, a stetson or a pair of leather boots. The scores of followers of the 33-year old messianic cult leader, David Koresh, holed up nearby in his compound with a huge arsenal of weapons, would have had no problem acquiring arms.

To walk away with Mr Cherry's AR-15 - or the Chinese- made Kalashnikov, or a dollars 519 high-powered, semi-automatic Glock-17 pistol, on sale at Keith's Gunshop - is simple. The customer is only required to fill out a form from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and produce a Texas driver's licence proving he or she is more than 21.

The form's questions are not difficult. Are you a fugitive from justice? Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective? Are you an alien illegally in the US? The only restriction, Mr Cherry explained, was that he could not sell an individual more than two guns a day. But if you came back tomorrow . . .

Mr Cherry has been searching through his shop records to see whether he sold any of the weapons used by the besieged cult members in shooting dead four ATF agents in a raid last Sunday, but he has found no evidence of this. However, the cult, which is believed to have hundreds of weapons, had plenty of choice. Fully automatic weapons - the sect has a .50-calibre machine gun capable of shooting down aircraft - are harder to find, but far from unavailable.

In Waco, the Bible and the bullet reign supreme. The rural democratic community has 200 churches - many of them Baptist - a dozen gun shops and a number of private weapons dealers. 'People here regard owning a gun as the same thing as having an automobile,' Mr Cherry said.

Last night, the siege of David Koresh, who claims to be a prophet, and his followers was continuing into its seventh day.

For a community of just over 100,000, the arrival of thousands of police, federal agents and journalists is a windfall that so far has generated an estimated dollars 1m for the local economy.

Mr Koresh has told FBI officials negotiating with him by telephone that he is awaiting a message from God, instructing him to leave with his 108-strong flock, including about 45 Britons. But the authorities were yesterday trying to put pressure on him through the 21 children he has allowed to be released.

The children, who include three Britons, have been kept together. Child care officials say they are well educated, healthy and unaffected by their experiences. In a televised press conference - almost certainly watched by Koresh - the FBI said the children strongly wanted to be reunited with their parents.

The agency has videotaped them to show members of the Branch Davidians that they are being well cared for. The strategy seems to be to try to coax out cultists by playing on their parental affections.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Waco watch the drama unfold with an air of bewilderment.

(Photograph omitted)