RE­THINK­ING GUN LAWS

In Suther­land Springs, Texas, the right to bear arms was a creed as strong as the Bap­tist faith. Last week­end’s hor­rific mas­sacre is caus­ing res­i­dents to think again

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Suzanne Lynch in Texas

Across the empty fields of south­ern Texas, the si­lence hung heavy in the air. The tiny com­mu­nity of Suther­land Springs was thrown into chaos last week­end as a lone gun­man parked his truck across from the First Bap­tist Church shortly af­ter 11.20am and be­gan shoot­ing.

Sec­onds later he en­tered the church through its western-fac­ing door, con­tin­u­ing to fire from his Ruger AR-556 ri­fle. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports from the few vic­tims who sur­vived the mass shoot­ing, Devin Patrick Kel­ley me­thod­i­cally strode along the pews of the tiny church, shoot­ing vic­tims, in­clud­ing chil­dren, at point-blank range as peo­ple screamed for mercy and prayed. Over the course of seven min­utes the gun­man, masked and clad in black, fired up to 400 rounds of am­mu­ni­tion from his mil­i­tary-style as­sault weapon.

By Wed­nes­day, 26 makeshift crosses were erected in the nearby field to mark those who had lost their lives in the at­tack. At the small lo­cal ceme­tery where peo­ple have been laid to rest for more than 150 years, prepa­ra­tions were be­ing made for the buri­als, with the first due to take place on Satur­day.

Quiet and re­mote

Suther­land Springs could be any small town in ru­ral Amer­ica. Quiet and re­mote, the vil­lage it­self is lit­tle more than a crossroads, with a post of­fice and two gas sta­tions sig­ni­fy­ing the cen­tre.

In nearby Floresville, the clos­est town to Suther­land Springs where many of the vic­tims at­tended school, dol­lar thrift shops and low- rent mo­tels stretch along the main street, hint­ing at a poverty that ex­ists be­neath the sur­face.

Though pre­dom­i­nantly white, the area has a strong His­panic pres­ence, the re­sult of cen­turies of im­mi­gra­tion from Mex­ico, sit­u­ated less than 200 miles away.

In many ways, Suther­land Springs is a world away from Las Ve­gas, the glitzy ex­u­ber­ant city which be­came the site of Amer­ica’s largest mass shoot­ing on Oc­to­ber 1st when Stephen Pad­dock opened fire on con­cert-go­ers from the win­dow of the Man­dalay Bay Ho­tel, killing 58 peo­ple.

But on Novem­ber 5th, both places were united, as a small Texan com­mu­nity be­came the lat­est US place to be­come syn­ony­mous with mass mur­der.

The lat­est mass shoot­ing to un­fold in the US has once again brought the is­sue of gun con­trol to the fore.

Leg­isla­tive ac­tion

Al­most im­me­di­ately there were calls from Democrats for leg­isla­tive ac­tion. “None of this is in­evitable,” said Connecticut sen­a­tor Chris Mur­phy, whose con­stituents were killed in the Sandy Hook school mas­sacre in 2012. “No other coun­try en­dures this pace of mass car­nage like Amer­ica. It is uniquely and trag­i­cally Amer­i­can. As long as our na­tion chooses to flood the county with dan­ger­ous weapons and con­sciously let those weapons fall into the hands of dan­ger­ous peo­ple, these killings will not abate.”

But Repub­li­cans took a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. In marked con­trast to his re­sponse to pre­vi­ous vi­o­lent events when he called for im­me­di­ate ac­tion, pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sug­gested there was noth­ing that could have been done to avoid the shoot­ing. The pres­i­dent who had called for the death penalty to be im­posed on New York at­tacker Say­fullo Saipov just days ear­lier, said it was too early to dis­cuss the is­sue of gun con­trol and said the sit­u­a­tion in Texas was a “men­tal health” is­sue and not a “gun sit­u­a­tion”.

The fact that Kel­ley was con­fronted by a pri­vate ci­ti­zen with a legally-held firearm who was hailed as a saviour also bol­stered the case of those who see gun own­er­ship as a con­sti­tu­tional right.

The statis­tics tell their own story, how­ever. More than 33,000 peo­ple died in gun- re­lated deaths in the US last year, more than half of which were sui­cide. But in terms of mass shoot­ings, the US leads the way.

A mass shoot­ing – de­fined as an in­ci­dent when four or more peo­ple are killed – takes place on av­er­age nine out of 10 days in the US, ac­cord­ing to the or­gan­i­sa­tion Gun Vi­o­lence Ar­chive. While Amer­i­cans make up less than 5 per cent of the global pop­u­la­tion, more than 31 per cent of the per­pe­tra­tors of mass shoot­ings have been Amer­i­can over the last 50 years.

Ac­cord­ing to at­tor­ney Ali Freilich of the Gif­fords Law Cen­ter, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that de­vel­oped af­ter the vi­o­lent gun at­tack on Con­gress­woman Gabrielle Gif­fords in 2011, states have sig­nif­i­cant power to act in the area of gun leg­is­la­tion given the tra­di­tional ab­sence of strong fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion in this area. “Our re­search has shown that, the stronger the state laws the fewer peo­ple die of gun vi­o­lence,” he says. For ex­am­ple, states with their own back­ground checks have about 40 per cent fewer homi­cide rates.

Will the lat­est mass shoot­ing change be­hav­iour?

As with the Las Ve­gas mas­sacre, the lat­est atroc­ity has spurred some calls for ac­tion – though these are lim­ited to spe­cific changes rather than any com­pre­hen­sive will­ing­ness to ex­am­ine gun leg­is­la­tion.

In the case of the Las Ve­gas shoot­ing the fo­cus was on bump stocks, a de­vice used by Stephen Pad­dock that is fit­ted to semi-au­to­matic weapons to mimic au­to­matic fir­ing. De­spite the Repub­li­can party lead­er­ship and the pow­er­ful Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion in­di­cat­ing that they were in favour of curb­ing ac­cess to the de­vices, no leg­is­la­tion has been forth­com­ing.

The Texas shoot­ings have fo­cused at­ten­tion on an­other is­sue – the back­ground check sys­tem that al­lowed Devin Kel­ley to ac­quire an as­sault weapon. Kel­ley was im­pris­oned and dis­charged from the air­force in 2012 for as­sault­ing his then wife and in­fant step­son, con­vic­tions that should have pro­hib­ited him from ac­quir­ing an as­sault-style firearm.

It is not the first time the back­ground check sys­tem has failed. Vir­ginia Tech shooter Se­ung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 peo­ple in 2007, had been pre­vi­ously or­dered by a special jus­tice to at­tend treat­ment be­cause of an “im­mi­nent dan­ger to him­self as a re­sult of men­tal ill­ness” but was al- lowed to ac­quire a firearm.

Sim­i­larly, Dy­lann Roof, the white su­prem­a­cist who shot dead nine black wor­ship­pers in a church in Charleston in 2015, had pre­vi­ous con­vic­tions for drug pos­ses­sion which should have made him in­el­i­gi­ble for pur­chas­ing the weapon he used to com­mit the atroc­ity. The Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on the is­sue next week.

Over­whelm­ingly voted

In the town of Suther­land Springs this week, a re­gion that over­whelm­ingly voted for Trump in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the right to bear arms is a creed as strong as the Bap­tist faith that binds this com­mu­nity to­gether.

But most peo­ple in the area agree that the gun­man should never have been per­mit­ted to ac­quire an as­sault weapon given his his­tory. “Those guns should be used by the mil­i­tary. Not by a reg­u­lar guy, par­tic­u­larly some­one with a men­tal health prob­lem,” lo­cal res­i­dent Norma said.

Chang­ing the ethos that be­lieves in the sanc­tity of the sec­ond amend­ment, will be more dif­fi­cult, how­ever.

Across the street from the Floresville med­i­cal cen­tre where some of the first vic­tims of the atroc­ity ar­rived on Sun­day, a gun store stands along­side a fam­ily den­tistry in a small shop­ping strip. On the out­skirts of nearby San An­to­nio huge signs for the week­end “gun show” tower along the free­ways.

As I leave San An­to­nio air­port, a con­ver­sa­tion that takes place in the se­cu­rity queue en­cap­su­lates the deep cul­tural com­mit­ment to gun own­er­ship in this part of the world. One lady re­counts to her col­league how her husband brought her friend to the shoot­ing range be­fore drop­ping him to the air­port. “He got stopped and ques­tioned – gun­pow­der showed up on the se­cu­rity sys­tem. Who’d have thought it would have picked that up?” she says, ge­nially.

“You can never be too care­ful,” the other per­son con­curs with a smile.

‘‘ A mass shoot­ing – de­fined as an in­ci­dent when four or more are killed – takes place on av­er­age nine out of 10 days in the US

PHO­TO­GRAPH: EPA/LARRY W SMITH

Maria Du­rand (left), a Bi­ble study teach­ers aid at First Bap­tist Church of Suther­land Springs, and her daugh­ter Lupita Al­co­ces, visit the 26 crosses rep­re­sent­ing the 26 vic­tims of the re­cent shoot­ing in the town.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES & REUTERS/JONATHAN BACHMAN & REUTERS/JONATHAN BACHMAN

Clock­wise from left: Megan Hill (9), a vic­tim of the mass shoot­ing at the First Bap­tist Church in Suther­land Springs, Texas, USA; the entrance to the First Bap­tist Church of Suther­land Springs, the site of the shoot­ing; US Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence shakes hands with John­nie Lan­gen­dorff, who was one of the two men that chased the as­sailant in the af­ter­math of the shoot­ing.

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