Texas mass shooting reignites US debate about gun control
Gun-control advocates fear focus on air force error may hinder wider debate
The scene outside the Connally Memorial Medical Center in Floresville, Texas, on Sunday following the shooting incident in Sutherland Springs in which 26 people were killed. Photograph: William Luther/San Antonio Express-News/AP
In the small town of Floresville, 16km southwest of Sutherland Springs where Devin Kelley opened fire on Sunday, people are still coming to terms with the attack that claimed the lives of 26 people and left many more injured.
On Sunday the Connally Memorial Medical Center, a modern hospital on the main street of the town, accepted many of the dead and dying. One person remained in the hospital in a stable condition on Tuesday, with two adults and two children still recovering from gunshot wounds at the University Health System hospital in San Antonio.
Floresville is like any rural town in the south. Along the main street, a string of motels and cheap eateries stretches out into the horizon. Trailer parks along the roads suggest the area is poor.
Many of the victims of the Sutherland Springs shooting attended Floresville high school a few blocks down from the hospital. Across from the hospital is a strip of shops and stores. Nestled beside a small family dentist’s practice is another staple of American retail life: a gun store.
In this area of Texas, as in many regions in the southern states of America, gun stores are relatively ubiquitous.
Kelley bought the gun he used in Sunday’s attack from the Academy Sports and Outdoor store in northern San Antonio in April last year.
Three weapons owned by the killer were found by police on Sunday – two handguns in his car, and the Ruger AR-556 rifle he used in his attack at the church. In addition, 15 empty 30-round magazines were found at the scene, suggesting the gunman fired 450 rounds during the attack.
In total, the 26-year-old suspect, who took his life in his SUV having been shot twice by a local resident who confronted him outside the church, bought four guns over the last four years, police said.
The US’s latest mass shooting has reignited debate about gun control. In particular, it has emerged that the US air force failed to notify federal authorities about Kelley’s convictions for domestic violence, and the fact that he had been discharged from the air force for assaulting his wife and stepson in 2012 – a move that would have prohibited him from buying the rifle he used in the killings.
As the blame game begins – the air force has said it has opened an investigation – many of those who favour strict gun restrictions worry that the focus on the air force’s error may provide an easy scapegoat and delay a much-needed wider debate.
Gun-control campaigners have long called for a strengthening of the background-check system, arguing that it contains too many loopholes. But even if Kelley had been prevented from buying the military-style rifle he used to kill 26 people in minutes, he would still have been legally permitted to buy a handgun without a background check (in Texas, gun owners need a licence to carry – not to buy – a handgun).
Further, a large percentage of gun sales are made on the private market or over the internet, allowing buyers and sellers to circumnavigate the federal background check system.
The fact that a private citizen – a former National Rifle Association instructor – used his own weapon to engage Kelley, potentially preventing him from killing many more, has given a boost to gun supporters. In a sense Sunday’s events underlined the favoured argument of pro-gun lobbyists: that the only way to deal with gun violence is to ensure that a “good guy with a gun” can defend himself and other innocent people.
This is despite studies which show that higher rates of gun ownership correspond to higher rates of mass shootings.
US president Donald Trump wasted no time in insisting that the Texas gun massacre had nothing to do with guns, saying gun control was “not going to help”, and pointing out that action by an armed citizen had prevented “hundreds” more deaths.
It remains highly unlikely that the latest mass shooting will prompt any legislative response on gun legislation at federal or state level. Although the Las Vegas shooting five weeks ago generated some moves by the Republican party to consider restricting the sale of “bump stocks”, the device that was attached to the rifle used by Stephen Paddock to shoot dead 58 people, no legislation has yet to come forward.
It is unlikely that this latest atrocity will do much to help the case of gun control campaigners.