Texas' elected officials treaded carefully Monday as they reacted to a shooting on Sunday in Garland that left two gunmen dead outside a contest featuring cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Some called it an attack on free speech, while others simply thanked law enforcement and said they were monitoring the situation.
Speaking with reporters Monday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott called the shooting a "heinous crime" that struck at the heart of the First Amendment. He added he would not feel differently if the shooting had happened in connection with an event mocking Christianity.
"What Christians believe is we need to protect our religious liberties, but that doesn't mean engaging in gun battle to do so," Abbott told reporters following the annual National Day of Prayer breakfast in North Austin. In a statement late Sunday, Abbott said Texas officials were investigating the shooting.
On Monday morning, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick agreed with Abbott that the events like the one held Sunday provide "no excuse for violence."
"If Americans are threatened to be killed for their words & actions, no matter how offensive, then freedom itself is lost and with it America is lost," Patrick wrote on Facebook.
As the event in the Dallas suburb was winding down Sunday evening, the gunmen drove to the front of the venue and opened fire on a security guard using assault rifles, according to police officials. A Garland police officer returned fire, shooting and killing the men. The security guard's injuries were not life-threatening.
A bomb squad stayed on the scene late into the night, though no bombs were ultimately found inside the vehicle driven by the gunmen, Garland police spokesman Joe Harn said Monday morning.
At a news conference in Garland that was livestreamed on the WFAA website, Harn said authorities were not ruling out the possibility the shooting was a terrorist attack.
"We're certainly looking into that," he told reporters. "We have not knocked that out."
There was not much official information about the gunmen available Monday morning. ABC News identified one of the gunmen as an Arizona man who had previously been investigated for terrorism. But Harn said authorities would not be releasing any names.
Inside the event, about 200 people had gathered to vie for a $10,000 award for the best drawing of Muhammad. Depictions of the prophet are offensive to many Muslims.
Organizers had defended the contest as an expression of free speech, and some elected officials said Monday morning the shooting was an affront to that principle.
"Quite simply, an attack on free speech is an attack on all Americans," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.
"Freedom of expression has again been attacked by fanatics," U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said in a statement that drew a comparison between the "capitals of Europe" — the sites of recent attacks fueled by radical Islam — and the "streets of Garland."
Other politicians said they were waiting to see all the facts come out. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican running for president, said on social media he was grateful for authorities who responded to the attack and will "continue to monitor the situation closely."
State Sen. Don Huffines, the Dallas Republican whose district includes the site of the shooting, said in a statement he was "saddened at the senseless attack." "The use of violence on a community is never the right path," he added.
Harn said Monday morning a number of agencies are helping Garland police, including the FBI, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Abbott's office said Monday afternoon he had called and offered his support earlier in the day to Garland Mayor Douglas Athas and Bruce Joiner, the Garland ISD security officer who was shot by the gunmen. Abbott also got a briefing from DPS Director Steve McCraw on the investigation into the shooting.
Asked if the Texas Department of Public Safety was offering assistance or investigating the incident, Director Steve McCraw late Sunday told The Texas Tribune, "Yes and that is all we can say."
Prominent conservative activist Katrina Pierson was among the attendees at the contest. Pierson recalled a relative calm as authorities worked to move attendees to a safe location.
"Everyone just sang and prayed and there was no chaos," she recalled. "It was praying for the officer that was shot and praying for our country and praying for free speech."
Terri Langford and Alana Rocha contributed reporting.