We must talk now about preventing future mass shootings
On Nov. 5, Devin Patrick Kelley entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs and began shooting. By the end of his rampage, 26 people were dead and 20 more were injured — many of them seriously.
This wasn’t the deadliest mass shooting in American history. That happened six weeks ago in Las Vegas at a country music festival. But Sutherland Springs, an unincorporated town southeast of San Antonio, will be remembered as the site of one of the worst mass shootings in modern Texas as well as an unusual one, in certain respects. In recent years, America has experienced enough mass shootings that these tragedies and the reactions to them have come to seem grimly routine. The dead are tallied. Their murderer is identified. His social media profiles are scrutinized for clues about the beliefs or experiences that warped his soul and cost his unsuspecting neighbors their lives.
Democrats suggest that maybe it’s time we talk about gun violence or an even more polarizing topic: gun control. Republicans scold them for trying to politicize the latest round of bloodshed before the bodies left behind have even grown cold.
Two things about the Sutherland Springs shooting, however, may make it possible for us to respond to this tragedy with a serious conversation about how to prevent the next one rather than an overheated and polarized debate — if we’re willing to try.
The first is that the carnage was in fact ended, thankfully, by a good guy with a gun. Stephen Willeford, a neighbor of First Baptist and former National Rifle Association instructor, grabbed his rifle and ran across the street after his daughter called to tell him that she heard gunfire at the church. He confronted Kelley, who tried to flee
the scene, and pursued him after enlisting the help of a stranger who was driving by, Johnnie Langendorff.
By the time police caught up with them just minutes later, Kelley was already dead, having been shot in his leg and torso then killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Second, although Texas has a reputation as an aggressively gun-friendly place, it’s actually not the state’s fault that Kelley had access to guns in the first place. His service in the Air Force ended several years ago with a demotion and discharge for bad conduct after serving a year in a military prison for beating his then-wife and fracturing his toddler stepson’s skull. Per state law, he was therefore not eligible for a license to carry. Gov. Greg Abbott told CNN on Monday that Kelley had applied for one anyway, and the state rightly rejected it. Another loophole
What enabled this mass shooting, in other words, wasn’t our state or federal gun laws; it was lackadaisical enforcement of the latter. Per federal law, people convicted of domestic violence are barred from purchasing firearms in the first place. Kelley was nonetheless able to pass a background check because the Air Force failed to submit the information about his conviction to the National Crime Information Center’s database.
This is an oversight that occurs frequently enough that it’s probably correct to call it a loophole, and several Republicans have joined Democrats in doing so. Sen. John Cornyn told CNN on Tuesday that he is working on legislation that would improve the military’s reporting rates, which are currently, as he put it, “staggeringly low.”
Cornyn added that the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which he serves, is looking into whether the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has the authority to regulate bump stocks, which can be used to modify semi-automatic weapons and were used accordingly to such devastating effect in Las Vegas. ‘Going to happen again’
Those ideas are not even controversial from a conservative perspective. It’s a shame, then, that some of Cornyn’s peers remain as fatalistic as ever, reluctant to engage with any of the questions or concerns that all mass shootings raise.
Last Sunday, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appeared on Fox News and weighed in: “This is going to happen again.”
“I wish some law would fix all of this,” he continued, before dismissing the possibility that some law, such as the ones that Cornyn and others have proposed, might address any of it. Paxton offered an alternative prescription. More Texans should bring their guns to church, in the attorney general’s opinion: “There’s always the opportunity that the gunman will be taken out before he has the opportunity to kill very many people.”
Abbott, in an appearance on Fox News the following day, encouraged everyone to keep things in perspective.
“Look at what happened with Hitler during the horrific events during that era,” the governor said.
Mussolini, he continued, was also a bad apple, and “horrific” things happened in the Middle Ages, to boot.
“Evil is something that has permeated this world,” Abbott said. “And that force of evil must be combated with the force of good that is offered by God.”
I don’t disagree with that, but I’ve been going to church my whole life, and I’ve never heard anyone suggest that God’s plan precludes us from taking certain commonsense precautions against the force of evil, such as closing well-documented loopholes in our extant gun laws.
That being the case, it would be nice to see Cornyn’s fellow Republicans support his efforts here. If that’s a bridge too far, I hope we can all at least agree that it’s not actually true that there is literally nothing we can do to address the problem at hand.
Democrats sometimes dismiss the role that prayers may play in the healing process for a community, like Sutherland Springs, that has suffered such an overwhelming blow; in my view, they shouldn’t. With that said, I can understand why some Americans, in the wake of such an event, might pray for a legislative branch that legislates. Everything’s a weapon
It may be impossible to end mass shootings once and for all in a country where gun rights are enshrined in the Constitution and supported by most Americans. We should, of course, remember that the underlying cause of gun violence is that there are people who are driven to use the tools at their disposal, whatever they are, to cause harm; on Nov. 1, a man in New York killed eight people and injured 11 using a truck. Ultimately, we may not even be able to reliably minimize the number of people an aggrieved individual has the “opportunity”, as Paxton put it, to kill.
But we don’t really know that, do we? On Dec. 14, 2012, a young man in Newtown, Conn., killed his mother, then got in her car and drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 20 children and six adults. That mass shooting resulted in an anguished debate about federal gun laws — which were, in the end, not changed at all.