On Sunday, suspected shooter Devin Patrick Kelley walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, wearing a ballistic vest and carrying a Ruger AR-556 assault-style rifle and opened fire, killing at least 26 people and wounding at least 20 more. Among the victims was a pregnant woman, the 14-year-old daughter of the church’s pastor and other children as young as five years old. In April 2016, Kelley purchased the Ruger AR-556 rifle at an Academy Sports + Outdoors store in San Antonio, Texas, despite having been court-martialed and jailed for a year for assaulting his wife and child. In filling out the background check paperwork, Kelley indicated he did not have a criminal history that disqualified him from purchasing the firearm. For more on gun control and background checks, we speak with Ed Scruggs, vice chair and spokesperson for Texas Gun Sense.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our coverage of Sunday’s mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, a tiny rural community east of San Antonio, Texas. The governor said it’s the worst shooting in Texas history—26 people dead, 20 more wounded, including children, elderly, a pregnant woman. The suspect, Devin Patrick Kelley, white ex-Air Force soldier, court-martialed, jailed for a year for assaulting his wife and child in 2012, still able to legally purchase a military-style assault rifle.
Our guests are, in Austin, Texas, Ed Scruggs, vice chair and spokesperson for Texas Gun Sense; in Philadelphia, we’re joined by George Ciccariello-Maher, political science professor at Drexel University, who was banned from campus after questioning why mass shootings in the U.S. are almost always carried out by white men; and we’re still joined in Atlanta by Sarah Tofte, research director at Everytown for Gun Safety. Her team just published a new report on the links between domestic violence and mass shootings.
Ed Scruggs, let’s go to you in Texas. Your response to the shootings and what is allowed in Texas?
ED SCRUGGS: Well, thanks for having me today. Of course, it’s a tragic time here in Texas. There’s quite a bit of shock throughout the state, and especially in small communities, that a crime of this magnitude could occur. And, of course, our thoughts are with those families and the victims at this time. But part of what our organization is here to do is to remind folks that there are steps that we can take, and there’s a discussion we need to have, about ways to eliminate this type of violence, and that no one is immune to this violence, whether in rural or urban communities, in the state of Texas or any other state.
Here in Texas, what’s allowed, it is rather wide open in terms of gun ownership. In recent years, our state leadership has taken to loosening gun laws in basically any way that they can. A few years ago, they legalized campus carry. They also legalized open carry of firearms. It’s always been legal here to carry long guns on the street. That would include a shotgun or a assault-type weapon like an AR-15.
A few years ago, there was a groundswell of some extreme grassroots activists that began working for open carry and walking down the streets of our capital city here in Austin carrying their AR-15s and having parades, etc. Our Legislature is very much influenced by what I would call an extremist movement that believes in no gun ownership restrictions whatsoever. And they do have pull with the Legislature and with our governor. And it’s pretty maddening and shocking to see, actually.
But our organization is working hard to have a conversation in the other direction. And we realize what we’re up against here, but we are having a conversation. We are getting in the doors of the Legislature and talking with folks. And, you know, progress is measured here, but we are forcing them to have the conversation. And so that’s where we stand.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Trump, in February, signed off on legislation that would make it easier for people who are mentally ill to purchase guns. Can you talk about what are—what’s the history of dealing with mental illness around guns, and this issue we’ve just been discussing with Sarah Tofte of Everytown for Gun Safety, about people who have abused their family members being able to get guns, like this man in Texas, who was jailed for a year for—
ED SCRUGGS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —assaulting his wife and child?
ED SCRUGGS: I think that’s—you know, we’re less than one day away from this, but that’s the big story to come out of this. How did this man, with this record of established violent acts, not only against people, but animals, who served a year in jail, been discharged from the military—how was he able to go out and buy arguably one of the most powerful weapons available and commit this crime? It’s shocking. I think it should be eye-opening to people who may think, oh, everyone has a background check, or background checks keep weapons out of the hands of these people, that the—you know, we have safeguards against the mentally ill. That’s not really true. There are so many end runs around the background check system. The background check system that we do have is not strict enough. It does not go deep enough into personal histories.
And that was one element of the rule that Trump rescinded this year, was an attempt by the Obama administration to get a real handle on the mental health issue by accessing Social Security records for those people who are receiving disability due to mental health, that that would be in the system, to where that would flag on a background check. And that’s all it was. But, of course, gun rights advocates really did not like that at all. That was touching a third rail for them of invading their privacy or something to that effect. And so, one of his first acts as president was to rescind that rule. So, when the president goes on international television, as he did late last night our time, and say, “This is a mental health issue,” you have to question: Well, are you committed to doing something about the mental health issue?
But actually, I think to just to label this as a mental health issue is somewhat misleading, because under current law, someone convicted of domestic violence is not qualified as mentally ill. They would not be judged incompetent in a court to handle their own affairs. And that’s how you would keep someone from purchasing a weapon, although federal law does say, if you are convicted of domestic violence, you should not be able to purchase. It’s not as if this suspect, from what we know now, would have been classified as a mentally ill person unable to take care of their own affairs.
If something comes out of this that wakes up the population, perhaps it will be that our background system is not—our background check system is not adequate. We do not have adequate reporting. We’re going to find out how he was able to obtain these weapons, and I think it will be alarming to some people.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s interesting is, President Trump, from Japan, where he was pushing and boasting about them buying more U.S. military weapons from the United States, said this isn’t the time to talk about gun control, after this chilling massacre in Texas. Of course, last week, when the massacre took place here in New York with a truck, he said we have to cut down on immigration, immediately after the killings had taken place. Now, and I also wanted to clarify: He rescinded a rule, so it wasn’t exactly signing off on legislation—
ED SCRUGGS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —around making it easier for the mentally ill to get guns.