By the time Governor Greg Abbott appeared in front of TV cameras Monday morning, a sharper image of the country’s latest mass shooting was taking shape. Officials had already confirmed that 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley had a history of domestic violence, like many other mass killers. That should have prevented him from purchasing the Ruger assault-style rifle he used to slaughter at least 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Instead, Texas’ worst mass shooting in modern history represents yet another breathtaking failure by the federal background check system.
Abbott told news anchors on Monday that Texas had denied Kelley’s application for a state handgun license. But Texas, unlike some other states, doesn’t require a permit to purchase a rifle or handgun, making the feds the only real check on gun buyers in the state. When CNN’s Chris Cuomo pressed Abbott, the Texas governor invoked the spiritual realm, saying a prayer vigil with mourners in Sutherland Springs the night before had taught him “the best way to confront this evil is by using the forces of God to confront and overcome this evil.” When CBS’ Gayle King asked Abbott how he’d ensure those “evil” people don’t have access to firearms, he urged the country to return to “the fundamentals of our faith-based nation.” King cut him off mid-sentence, trying to bring the interview back to guns, but Abbott wasn’t swayed.
“The important thing is that if you go back to early times of this world, to the times of yesterday and last week, evil exists in this world,” Abbott said. In a later interview with Fox News, he raised Hitler, Mussolini, the Dark Ages and even “post-New Testament” periods of violence as signs that “evil is something that has permeated this world.”
Abbott wasn’t the only Texas politician to give the typical thoughts-and-prayers response to mass shootings a fatalistic, faith-tinged spin this week. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton abandoned his usual law-and-order bromides, instead questioning gun-control laws if criminals will just break them. Meanwhile, in a press conference Monday afternoon, Senator Ted Cruz labeled the massacre in Sutherland Springs a story of “inspiration and hope” before scolding the media for even asking about guns. “Evil is evil is evil,” Cruz insisted, “and will use the weaponry that is available.”
Bad people taking advantage of readily available weapons to carry out heinous crimes is actually the reason that calls for gun control follow each tragedy like Sutherland Springs, the country’s 307th mass shooting so far this year. Gun deaths in the United States eclipse those in other Western industrial nations, which researchers continue to connect to the widespread availability of firearms here. As Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center puts it, “more guns = more homicide.” Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Austin was among the chorus of liberal and progressive politicians blaming Republicans for their inaction on the issue in light of the shooting. As he wrote in a Sunday afternoon Facebook post, “Once again violence destroys lives, while this Congress, owned lock, stock and barrel by the NRA refuses to act.”
Kelley appears to have been able to buy the weapon he needed to gun down an entire church service because of a notoriously buggy background check system for gun purchasers, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. On Monday afternoon, the Air Force admitted it hadn’t properly entered Kelley’s 2012 court martial for domestic violence into the federal database. That means the Academy store in San Antonio that reportedly sold Kelley his guns never learned that he was convicted of beating his wife and step-child. In addition to kicking and choking his wife, Kelley “assaulted his stepson severely enough that he fractured his skull,” Don Christensen, a retired colonel and former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, told The New York Times on Monday. “He pled to intentionally doing it.” The shooting may even hint at a larger flaw. The U.S. military appears to have sent almost no records of domestic abusers to the federal database, according to The Trace, a gun-focused news outlet.
What’s come out already about the bloodshed in Sutherland Springs raises questions for state officials like Abbott. The military news website Task & Purpose questions why, if Texas’ gun-licensing system flagged Kelley and denied him a permit to carry a gun, that information never made it to the feds, who could have actually stopped him from owning one. (When asked, Texas Department of Public Safety didn’t immediately say when the agency denied Kelley a gun permit.)
By the time Abbott went on air with conservative talk radio host Mark Levin on Monday evening, his message had already started to shift from the Biblical version of “shit happens.” He was ready to talk gun control once the day’s news had proved to him that the country doesn’t need more firearms restrictions. Instead, he told Levin, our violence-plagued nation needs better enforcement of existing laws.
Abbott wasn’t even sure that would do much to end the killing. As he told Levin, “if someone is willing to break the law to kill someone, then that person is likely willing to break the law to get a gun illegally.”