New details in Texas church shooting lead to more questions

A law enforcement official investigates the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A man opened fire inside the church in the small South Texas community on Sunday, killing and wounding many. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

As authorities work to piece together the actions and motivations of Devin Patrick Kelley, the man who killed 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Sunday, they are closing in on answers to two central questions: how did he get his guns and why did he target that church?

Fred Milanowski, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Houston field office, told reporters Monday that Kelley was denied a permit to carry handguns in Texas. However, he was still able to purchase four guns in the last four years, two in Texas and two in Colorado.

According to Justin Sparks, a Fort Worth attorney and expert on Texas firearms laws, being prohibited from carrying a handgun in public is not the same as being prohibited from buying and owning one.

“Say I don’t have a license, I can go buy a gun, I can keep that gun in my house, I can also keep that gun in my vehicle, as long as its concealed, and I can carry it between the two,” he said.

It is not yet clear why Kelley was denied a permit, but Sparks said it is possible to fail the application process for that and still pass the federal background check to purchase a gun. Also, one does not need a permit to carry rifles or shotguns in public in Texas.

“I can walk around all day long with a rifle on my shoulder without a permit,” Sparks said.

Several details have been revealed about Kelley that, under certain circumstances, could have prohibited him from purchasing guns.

The New York Times reported Monday that Kelley was charged with assault for hurting his wife and fracturing his infant stepson’s skull while stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 2012. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 12 months of confinement, and was given a bad conduct discharge.

In 2014, Kelley faced a misdemeanor charge for cruelty to animals that was later dismissed. A neighbor told the Times he had struck his pit bull puppy.

Under federal law, a person cannot possess a firearm if they have a dishonorable discharge from the military, a conviction for a felony punishable by more than one year in prison, or a conviction for misdemeanor domestic violence. NPR reported Monday that a Pentagon official said a mistake may have kept Kelley’s arrest or conviction from being listed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“These FFL dealers, they rely on the national database that they use to check someone’s background,” Sparks said. “So the issue is, is that up to date? Does that include everything that needs to be in there?”

Academy Sports and Outdoors stores, where Kelley purchased two guns in 2016 and 2017, said in a statement that he did pass a federal background check.

On Capitol Hill Monday, lawmakers spoke broadly of a need to take action on guns, as they often do after such incidents, but they seemed no closer to finding common ground than they did following the last mass shooting.

“We have to do something,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

"We need to control the proliferation of guns,” he said when asked what must be done. “And people who are mentally ill, who beat their spouses, their wives, their husbands, their children, shouldn't have guns!"

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., urged Congress to look to states that have successfully implemented tighter controls on firearms access.

“Treat it like the health epidemic that it is,” he said. “And there are dozens of things that can happen. And in fact, in some states that have taken some of these steps, they have fewer people who die. We don't have to be the only country, the only rich country in the world, that can't protect families from gun violence.”

According to Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the shooting underscores the need for legislation dealing with mental health.

“We’re certainly having to address the mental health issues that are not just prevalent in Texas but in every state across the country, so I’m sure you’ll see renewed effort on that in the coming days,” he said.

However, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., questioned Republicans’ commitment to addressing that, given their other health care policies.

“We need to do work on the mental health stuff,” he said. “But these guys say, 'Well, it's all mental health,' and then they repeal the mental health provisions in the Affordable Care Act. It's absolutely disingenuous on their part."

Mike McLively, a senior staff attorney at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said there are plenty of opportunities to toughen firearms restrictions to address the issues this shooting raises.

“The laws surrounding domestic violence and violence could certainly be improved,” he said. “Prior acts of violence, whether they qualify as domestic violence or not, are one of the strongest predictors of future violence.”

He pointed to California’s rules that include a broader category of prohibited violent offenses than federal law. The Giffords Center recommends other states follow suit and consider restricting access for those convicted of stalking, facing temporary restraining orders, or convicted of violence against a dating partner.

McLively emphasized that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are non-violent, but states can do more to identify the ones who are not.

“People with serious mental illness can be prevented from purchasing firearms through the use of universal background checks,” he said.

Gun rights advocates have generally opposed measures that they believe violate due process rights. Earlier this year, Republicans overturned an Obama-era policy that would have prevented some mentally ill Social Security beneficiaries from buying guns. The NRA applauded the reversal.

McLively also suggested making it easier for the government to enforce current laws.

“The ATF is the federal agency responsible for enforcing gun laws and is shockingly underfunded,” he said. “A number of laws also prevent ATF from keeping electronic records, so they have to do everything by paper and pencil in the 21st Century, which makes no sense.”

The ATF has hundreds of millions of firearm records in thousands of boxes at its National Tracing Center in West Virginia. The agency has been digitizing them in recent years, but restrictions imposed by Congress prevent them from establishing a searchable database.

“Conservatives usually say ‘just enforce the laws on the books,’ but they are responsible, at the request of the gun lobby, for hamstringing the agency that is in the best position to do that,” McLively said.

Investigators said Monday that they do not believe Kelley’s choice of target was religiously or racially motivated. Instead, they pointed to domestic issues and threats he made against his mother-in-law, who sometimes attends First Baptist Church but was not there on Sunday. Kelley’s wife’s grandmother was among the victims, according to CNN.

The symbolism of violence invading what should be a peaceful refuge has made the massacre even more difficult to process for many observers.

“There is a peculiar evil that can worship God and pray with people and then come back and murder those same people,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, outside the church Monday.

Elsewhere on Sunday, a man killed his estranged wife and her boyfriend outside St. Alphonsus Church in Fresno, Calif. In September, a gunman killed one woman and injured seven others at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn. Police said the suspect in the Antioch shooting had a note in his car that referred to Dylann Roof, who killed nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C. in 2015.

According to Carl Chinn, a church security consultant, 2017 is already the worst year for violent deaths associated with faith-based properties in the U.S. on record, with 108 deaths so far.

“In America, we had developed this westernized idea that God was somehow different here than in other parts of the world; that evil would never invade our sanctuary,” Chinn said in a statement Monday.

Chinn was a member of the security team that took down a gunman at New Life Church in Colorado Springs in 2007. Five people were killed in that incident, including the shooter.

In light of the recent spate of violence, he urged churches to “stop living in denial” about the need to protect worshippers.

“We don’t worry; God does protect. But we have a role in the process,” he said.

The current senior pastor of New Life Church, Brady Boyd, told KKTV in Colorado that news of the Texas shooting brought back “very dark memories” for his community.

"For a gunman to walk into a church building and open fire is very evil,” he said. “It’s unbelievably dark, these people were caught unaware with no way to defend themselves. It’s just so sad. Our hearts are broken for them and we are praying for their healing and their restoration and for them to get some semblance of normality of their life back.”

Jimmy Meeks, a minister who served as a pastor and police officer in the Fort Worth area for more than a decade, said he has seen enough violence in places of worship that it no longer shocks him.

“Church people are very soft targets…. There is a religious mentality that thinks, this is a house of God, he will protect it,” he said.

Despite his experiences, Meeks, who teaches seminars on church protection, struggled to grasp the motivation investigators have suggested was behind the attack.

“What kind of anger must you have that you would shoot an 18-month old baby and 25 other people because you were mad at your in-laws?” he asked.

Meeks was in Sutherland Springs Monday, and his recommendation for the community there is to take the time to process their grief and not to pretend that everything is okay.

“Don’t cover the grief up, man. Let it go,” he said. “The shortest verse in the Bible is, ‘Jesus wept,’ John 11:35, and that would be my advice.”

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