UCSB responds

UCSB President Janet Napolitano said she was "shocked and deeply saddened" by the shooting near the campus. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this tragedy, their families and the entire SantaBarbara community," she said in a statement.

Napolitano, formerly U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, said victims' families still were being notified. The university was offering services to family members, faculty and students, including counseling, she said. 

Some 23,000 people live in Isla Vista. Many are students at UCSB or at Santa Barbara City College. 

'Bang, bang, bang'

Robert Johnson, a 21-year-old UCSB student, said he first noticed trouble after a car drove past him at a busy Isla Vista intersection and he then heard "popping noises" that he originally mistook for firecrackers or the car backfiring. "Then the sound came again, and by that point it had pulled up in front of a convenience store deli, and someone in the car was firing into a crowd of about eight, 10 people that were gathered in front of the store," he said. "Everyone that was being fired upon, they all jumped and scrambled to run inside the store," he said. The car had darkly tinted windows and the occupant was not visible, Johnson said.

Witness Xavier Mozejewski told a local TV station the incident was like an "old western shoot-out." College student Brad Martin told a University of California at Santa Barbara student newspaper that his girlfriend was "absolutely hysterical" after being approached by the gunman with a weapon she initially was not sure was real. "She said the next second he raised it up to her face ... and she turned around and started running. That's when she heard 'bang, bang, bang' right behind her as she was running," Martin told the Daily Nexus.

Nikolaus Becker, An 18-year-old Newport Beach man who was visiting Santa Barbara, described a confusing scene as the shots rang out.

Becker was eating outside a restaurant named The Habit, near the scene when the first set of shots was fired about 9:30 p.m. At first he thought it was firecrackers. A group of three to five police officers who were nearby started to casually walk toward the sounds, said Becker, but ran when a second round of shots broke out.

"That's when they yelled at us to get inside and take cover," Becker said.

A black BMW with dark tinted windows took a sharp turn in front of The Habit, Becker said, and moments later a third round of shots was heard. Becker and his friends moved toward the restaurant's kitchen but were told to wait in the seating area by employees.

He estimates there were at least 13 to 15 shots total at three locations. The locations were about 100 yards from one another.

Becker said one of his friends who came into the restaurant after the shootings saw a police officer trying to resuscitate a bloody male who was hit.

Another girl came into The Habit crying and said her sorority sister had also been struck. 

When Becker emerged from the restaurant about 30 minutes later, he saw three light-colored body bags.

"It was chaotic and there's a lot of rumors flying around," Becker said. "It was so strange, afterwards there was still people outside riding their bikes. One guy was doing his homework."

Another shooting

The shooting was yet another in a string of mass violence to strike across the United States. Last month, a gunman killed three people and himself at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas, where another gunman killed 13 people in 2009. The 2009 gunman, then Maj. Nidal Hasan, has since been convicted in the massacre and sentenced to death.

In between the two Fort Hood incidents, a civilian contractor killed 13 at the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013 before being killed in a shootout with police.  

In December 2012, 20 children and six adults along with the gunman were killed in a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

Six months before that, a gunman killed 14 people in a Denver-area movie theater during a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises." James Holmes, the alleged shooter, is currently facing trial in Colorado.

The deadliest U.S. mass shooting in modern times was in 2007, when a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people in an early morning campus shooting spree. The gunman did not survive.

-Reuters and the Los Angeles Times contributed