November 7, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: A Massacre in a Texas Church

On November 5, at least twenty-six people were killed and another twenty wounded in a shooting at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

• On November 5, a man with a semi-automatic rifle and a history of domestic violence killed 26 people at a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

• Authorities say the attack was not ideologically motivated terrorism but likely stemmed from a domestic dispute.

• A bureaucratic failure by the U.S. Air Force allowed the killer to acquire guns, despite laws banning people convicted of crimes of domestic violence from possessing firearms.

• The United States is the only country where mass shootings occur with regularity.


On November 5, at least twenty-six people were killed and another twenty wounded in a shooting at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The incident is among the worst mass murders in modern U.S. history; a record of deaths by firearm unmatched by any other developed nation. 

Authorities were quick to state the crime was not ideologically motivated and therefore could not be considered ‘terrorism.’  The gunman, identified as 26-year old Devin Kelley, had a history of domestic violence and was reportedly in a ‘domestic situation’ with his family. He targeted the First Baptist Church which his mother-in-law often attended, though she was not present during the attack.

While there are exceptions, such as the Las Vegas shooter who murdered 59 people last month, violence towards women is one of the most common characteristics shared by the men responsible for mass shootings. Devin Kelley enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2010; in 2013, a military court found him guilty of assaulting his first wife and baby stepson and sent him to a military prison for a year. Cruelty to animals Is another strong predictor of future violence and Kelley was fined in 2014, after witnesses saw him beating and dragging a dog. 

Kelley’s domestic assault conviction should have precluded him from legally owning or purchasing guns, including the military-styled Ruger AR-556 used in the church massacre and two handguns found in his car.  The U.S. Air Force admitted on November 6 that it had failed to inform federal law enforcement of Kelly’s conviction, which was not registered in the National Criminal Information Center database.  Air Force officials say they are investigating the case.

However, with firearms laws that differ from state-to-state, millions apparently obsessed with arming themselves and more guns than people, the U.S. predictably has a death-by-gun rate far above that of any developed nation. Those deaths include suicides and accidents as well as homicides; a November 5 article in The Atlantic noted that the U.S. has just five percent of the world’s population under age 15, yet ‘accounts for 87 percent of its unintentional firearm fatalities involving that age group.’

Political paralysis and passivity, in the face of regular gun carnage, was on display again after this latest massacre, with many U.S. leaders offering nothing more than ‘thoughts and prayers’ for the victims. Some politicians gave soundbites about the need for better access to mental health services, but without offering proposals on how that might be accomplished. When mass murders are deemed to be ‘terrorism’ — such as the October 31 New York City attack by an alleged supporter of the so-called Islamic State — responses are immediate and filled with calls for action. President Trump was quick to tweet for changing U.S. immigration laws after the New York attack, but did not demand tougher U.S. gun laws after this latest gun massacre. Meanwhile, gun deaths at the hands of violent men with histories of violence — but no links to terrorism — will continue in the U.S. at a rate unseen anywhere else, without meaningful attempts to address the issue.


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