A gunman killed himself and two others in a packed Louisiana cinema just hours after Barack Obama said the failure to restrict gun ownership was his biggest disappointment as president.
The man stood up about 20 minutes into the showing of 'Trainwreck' and began firing into the crowd, killing two and injuring at least seven others on Thursday night before fatally shooting himself.
"We heard a loud pop we thought was a firecracker," witness Katie Domingue told The Louisiana Advertiser.
"He wasn't saying anything. I didn't hear anybody screaming either," said Domingue, who added that she heard about six shots before she and her fiance ran to the nearest exit, leaving behind her shoes and purse.
Obama had just told the BBC that trying to pass "common sense" gun ownership laws was what had left him "most frustrated" in his presidency.
He told the BBC: "If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it's less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it's in the tens of thousands,
Police said the shooter as a 58-year-old "lone white male" with a "criminal history" but did not disclose his name. They evacuated the entire theatre complex and conducted a sweep inside the building.
Investigators found suspicious items inside the shooter's car and set off explosions in the vehicle.
Stories of heroism immediately began to emerge with Bobby Jindal, the state's governor and presidential hopeful, telling reporters that a teacher who was in the theatre jumped in front of a second teacher, saving her life.
The second teacher then managed to pull a fire alarm to alert other moviegoers, he said.
"Her friend literally jumped over her and, by her account, actually saved her life," Jindal said.
Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said at a news conference that police know who the gunman is, and that he had a "criminal history," but they are not immediately releasing his name.
Edmonson said the body of the shooter and "at least one other person" were still inside the theater. He said there were about 100 people inside the theater at the time of the shooting.
Edmunson added that police believe the gunman fired shots only at the theater and had not waged an attack anywhere else beforehand. However, authorities said they were not releasing his name immediately in part so police could safely track down and interview friends or family who knew the shooter.
"We have no reason to believe that this individual acted beyond this location here," Edmonson said.
He said police saw something suspicious inside the shooter's car and that a bomb-sniffing dog "hit on three different locations" in the vehicle, "so out of an abundance of caution we brought in the bomb squad."
One of the stars of "Trainwreck," Amy Schumer tweeted:
My heart is broken and all my thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Louisiana.— Amy Schumer (@amyschumer) July 24, 2015
Jindal called the shooting "an awful night for Louisiana."
"What we can do now is we can pray," he said. "We can hug these families. We can shower them with love, thoughts and prayers."
Lafayette is about 60 miles west of the state capital of Baton Rouge. Outside the movie theater complex hours after the shooting, a couple of dozen police cars were still at the scene, which authorities had cordoned off with police tape as onlookers took photos with their cellphones.
Landry Gbery, 26, of Lafayette, was watching a different movie, 'Self/less' at the time of the shooting when the lights came up and a voice over the intercom told everyone there was an emergency and that they needed to leave.
Gbery said he never heard gunshots, and assumed the emergency was a fire until he got outside and saw a woman lying on the ground.
"I was really anxious for everybody at that point," Gbery said. "Fortunately I was lucky. I took the right exit."
Tanya Clark was at the concession stand in the lobby when she saw people screaming and running past her. She said she immediately grabbed her 5-year-old daughter and ran.
"In that moment, you don't think about anything," Clark, 36, told The New York Times. "That's when you realise that your wallet and phone are not important."
Clark's son Robert Martinez said he saw an older woman run past with blood streaming down her leg, and screaming that someone had shot her.
The Louisiana shooting occurred three years after James Holmes entered a crowded movie theater in suburban Denver and opened fire during the premier of a Batman film, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others.
The shooting took place a week after the man who shot and killed 12 people at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, was convicted and on the very day a jury said his attack was cruel enough to consider sentencing him to death.
A jury last week quickly convicted Holmes on 165 counts of murder, attempted murder and other charges, rejecting defense arguments that he was insane and suffering delusions that drove him to the July 20, 2012, attack.
Prosecutors said Holmes planned and carried out the massacre to assuage the pain of his failures in graduate school and in romance. Defense lawyers said schizophrenia had been growing inside Holmes' mind for years and eventually overwhelmed him, creating a delusion that he could improve his self-worth by killing others and absorbing their value.