On the morning of Sunday, November 5, a lone gunman with a history of domestic violence entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and committed one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern American history – the worst ever at a house of worship. The gunman killed 26 churchgoers, injuring 20 others.
In the wake of the shooting, we learned that the gunman was court-martialed for two counts of domestic abuse and received a Bad Conduct Discharge from the Air Force after assaulting his first wife and cracking the skull of his baby stepson. However, the United States Air Force failed to enter information about these charges into the federal database for background checks on gun purchasers.
What We Know about this Shooting
THE INCIDENT: MASSACRE AT FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH
— At 11:30 AM CT on Sunday, November 5, a lone gunman entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX and opened-fire, killing 26 and injuring 20. This event was the largest mass shooting in Texas history. [CBS]
— Officials released the names of the 26 victims on Wednesday afternoon. [KENS 5]. Family members have been sharing bios and photos. [CNN] Victims range between the age of 18 months to 77 years-old. Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said 12 to 14 children were among the victims of the shooting. [ABC 13] Also among the dead were a pregnant woman, the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter, and eight members of the same family spanning three generations. [New York Times]
— The massacre was caught on film because the church routinely recorded its services, and often posted the resulting videos online. The video shows the gunman firing continuously for several minutes, methodically shooting his victims – including small children – in the head, execution-style. [New York Times]
— Pastor Frank Pomeroy said the church will be demolished. [Associated Press]
— Sutherland Springs is a small town with a population of roughly 362 residents and is located 35 miles east of San Antonio, Texas. [CNN]
— The gunman, identified as 26-year-old Devin Kelley, is now dead. He was struck by three gunshot wounds, including one self-inflicted to the head, and two—one in the leg, one in the torso—from an armed citizen. [TIME]
— The gunman escaped from a psychiatric hospital while he was in the Air Force, after making death threats against his superiors and trying to smuggle weapons onto the base where he was stationed. [New York Times]
— Although the motive has not been determined, authorities confirmed there was a domestic situation going on within the family. The suspect’s mother-in-law reportedly attended the church and had recently received threatening text messages from the suspect. [News Channel 3], [CNN]
— The gunman served in the Air Force from 2010 to 2014. In 2012, he was court-martialed for two counts of assault on his spouse and cracking their infant’s skull. [NBC News].
— He received a bad conduct discharge, which is a lesser charge than a dishonorable discharge, and confinement for 12 months. [CBS News], [TIME].
— Information about these charges was never entered into the federal database for background checks on gun purchasers by the Air Force. [New York Times] The Pentagon has known for at least two decades about failures to give military criminal history information to the FBI. Failure to report the outcome of criminal cases was 79 percent in the Army and 50 percent in the Air Force, the report said. In the Navy, it was 94 percent. [Associated Press]
— In August 2014, the gunman was charged with a misdemeanor count of mistreatment, neglect or cruelty to animals for abusing a dog in El Paso County, Colorado, where he lived. [Washington Post]
— The Texas Department of Public Safety denied the shooter’s application for a concealed carry permit, but no reason has been given for why. [CNN]
— The gunman used an Ruger AR-15 variant — a knockoff of the standard service rifle carried by the American military for roughly half a century and 15 magazines. . He was dressed in all-black tactical gear, including a ballistic vest. [CNN], [New York Times]
— Three guns were recovered in the gunman’s vehicle. A Ruger rifle and two handguns, one a Glock and another a Ruger. He had purchased a total of four guns during each of the last four years, officials said. [Washington Post]
Potential Legislative Solution
Someone convicted of domestic violence in a military proceeding poses the same public safety threat as someone convicted in a civilian court. Under federal law, the felony-level prohibition was deemed by Congress to be inadequate for the purpose of preventing domestic abusers from accessing firearms. Therefore, Congress elected to prohibit those with a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence (MCDV) from firearms possession. Likewise, Congress chose to prohibit those dishonorably discharged from the military from firearms possession.
Following the gunman’s conviction by a general court-martial on two charges of domestic violence and a bad conduct discharge, the Air Force has stated he was legally prohibited from purchasing or possessing guns under federal law. However, many ambiguities remain and more information is needed: it is unclear, for example, how the Air Force and other branches of the military are supposed to submit information about disqualifying domestic violence among service members to the gun purchaser background check system (NICS), what kind of protocols the Department of Defense has in place regarding this reporting, or how well those protocols are followed throughout the military.
Congress should look at ways to address DOD’s inadequate reporting to NICS. This may include codifying internal implementation guidelines of the NICS Amendments Authorization Act of 2007 regarding qualifying convictions. It may also include adding the equivalent of an MCDV prohibition for cases adjudicated under the UCMJ – and generally work to harmonize the UCMJ with the civilian legal system with respect to firearms prohibitions – to ensure those convicted individuals are treated the same way as abusers adjudicated by civilian courts.
Incomplete or missing domestic violence records is a lethal issue concerning both federal agencies and states. Congress should pass H.R. 4183, the Domestic Violence Records Reporting Improvement Act, recently introduced by Reps. Ryan Costello (R-PA) and Kathleen Rice (D-NY). This bill addresses the lack of reporting of domestic violence records to NICS by incentivizing states to submit complete records in two ways. First, it requires states to use their National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP) grants for purposes that contribute to the reporting of domestic violence records to NICS unless they have already submitted a certain percentage of such records. NCHIP grants are generally available to encourage states to improve criminal history and related records.
Second, the bill makes NICS Act Record Improvement Program (NARIP) grants more available to states to improve submission of domestic violence records by waiving the current requirement that states have a program to restore gun rights to individuals formerly subject to mental health disqualifiers. These programs currently must also meet certain legal requirements for states to be eligible for NARIP grants; as of 2016, 21 states did not have qualifying programs and thus did not receive this grant funding.
Building on a more complete background check system, legislation introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in the Senate as the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act (S. 1539) and by Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Dan Donovan (R-NY) in the House as the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act (H.R. 3207), seeks to close loopholes in federal gun prohibitors that allow violent abusers to continually access guns.
Current federal law prohibits individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from purchasing or possessing firearms– but only if the victim and perpetrator had a qualifying relationship. These qualifying relationships include individuals who are a current or former spouse, parent, parent of a child in common, current or former co-habitant, or a person similarly situated to a spouse, parent or guardian. This limited definition leaves individuals in noncohabitating dating relationships unprotected, their abusers free to legally access firearms.
Federal law also prohibits individuals convicted of felony stalking from owning or accessing firearms. However, felony stalking charges are often pled down to the misdemeanor level; those misdemeanor convictions then are not required to be entered into NICS and thus do not prohibit the abuser from gun possession. As stalking is a strong indicator of future violence against women, any person convicted of a stalking crime should be prohibited from accessing guns. S. 1539 and H.R. 3207 seek to close both of these loopholes, known as the “boyfriend loophole” and the “stalker gap,” to make victims of domestic violence and their families safer from violent abusers.
A Summary of Texas Laws
GUN VIOLENCE IN TEXAS
(Source: Giffords Law Center)
— Texas scores an F on Giffords Law Center’s annual State Gun Law Scorecard
— Texas ranks 34 when it comes to gun laws (1 being the strongest laws, 50 being the weakest laws)
— Texas has a gun death rate of 11.7 per 100K. It has the 28th highest gun death rate in the country.
GUNS IN CHURCH IN TEXAS
–Texas allows guns in houses of worship unless the individual establishment provides notification orally or in writing (which can be in the form of a sign) that it prohibits guns on the property.
CONCEALED CARRY LAWS IN TEXAS
— The Texas Department of Public Safety denied the shooter’s application for a concealed carry permit. Texas is a shall-issue state, meaning that they must issue the permit if the candidate meets certain requirements.
— Texas prohibits a person convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor (broadly defined to include dating partner violence, etc.) from possessing a firearm for 5 years following the conviction. In addition, any person convicted of a Class A or Class B misdemeanor or disorderly conduct within the 5 years preceding an application for a CCW permit may be denied the permit. The open carrying of long guns (including assault rifles) is generally allowed in Texas. However, Texas law prohibits the display of a firearm in a public place in a “manner calculated to alarm.” Open carrying of handguns generally requires a CCW permit.
TEXAS GUN LAWS DO NOT:
— Require a background check on private sales and transfers of firearms
— Require firearms dealers to obtain a state license
— Regulate the sale or possession of assault weapons, 50 caliber rifles, or large capacity ammunition magazines
— Require gun owners to obtain a license, register their firearms, or report lost or stolen firearms
— Limit the number of firearms that may be purchased at one time
— Regulate unsafe handguns (“junk guns” or “Saturday night specials”)
— Significantly regulate ammunition
— Allow local governments to regulate firearms
— Give local law enforcement discretion to deny a concealed carry permit
GUN TRAFFICKING IN TEXAS:
— Texas is a major source of gun trafficking to other states
— In 2009, Texas exported the fourth largest number of crime guns among the states, though its per capita rate of gun crime exports was the 12th lowest among the states.
— In 2009, 40% of the Mexican crime guns that were traced to the US were originally sold in Texas
Domestic Violence and Mass Shootings
An analysis of mass shootings from 2009 to 2016 shows in 54 percent of mass shootings, the shooters killed intimate partners or other family members. 25 percent of all mass shooting fatalities were children. In shootings involving domestic or family violence, children made up more than 40 percent of those killed. In nearly half the shootings – 42 percent of cases – the shooter exhibited warning signs in advance of the shooting, indicating they posed a danger to themselves or others.