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Yes, Texas church killings are a gun issue

When confronted with the second horrific mass shooting in as many months, President Donald Trump wasted no time in diverting attention from the issue at hand. Asked about the massacre of at least 26 people at a church in a tiny community near San Antonio, Mr. Trump asserted without hesitation or evidence that the shooting wasn’t “a guns situation” but a “mental health problem at the highest level.” Mr. Trump is no doubt right that the killer, Devin Patrick Kelley, was “deranged” — by definition, anyone who opens fire on innocent churchgoers must be that — but denying the other half of the equation, Mr. Kelley’s ability to wield an assault rifle capable of inflicting such damage in so short a span, is its own form of derangement.

The details that have emerged so far about Kelley’s life paint a picture of a troubled man. He was convicted in a military court of assaulting his then-wife and child in 2012, spent a year in prison and received a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force. He divorced and re-married. A Colorado animal cruelty charge for alleged mistreatment of his dog was dropped, and he reportedly moved back to his parents Texas home, which is about an hour from First Baptist Church of Southerland Springs. Authorities believe his motive may have sprung from an ongoing domestic dispute — some of his in-laws attended the church. But none were apparently there when Kelley arrived clad in black tactical gear with an AR-15-type assault rifle.

Federal law prohibits those with dishonorable discharges from the military from buying guns from a licensed dealer, but Kelley’s bad conduct discharge would not have stopped him. Air Force officials said Monday night that his domestic violence conviction in military court should have prevented him from passing a background check, but the military failed to upload the record. An investigation into the case is underway.

But even if the Air Force had uploaded his conviction, Kelley could still have bought an assault weapon easily. Federal background check law does not apply to private sales between individuals — the so-called gunshow loophole — and Texas (not surprisingly) is not among the states that mandate such background checks on their own. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott noted Monday that Kelley had failed in an attempt to receive a license to carry a gun in Texas — a process that is not nearly so rigorous as it is in Maryland — and said he should not have been able to obtain one at all. But if not for the Air Force’s error, federal and Texas law would have made it perfectly easy for him to do so.

The story of guns in this shooting is complicated by the fact that an as-yet unnamed neighbor got his own gun and confronted Kelley after he left the church. The two exchanged gunfire, and the neighbor reportedly wounded Kelley before engaging in a high speed chase that ended several miles later when Kelley drove into a field, dead from what local authorities say was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The neighbor’s bravery is without question, but we should not let it divert us into the old NRA canard that we need more good guys with guns to combat the bad ones, as President Trump has already sought to do by noting “fortunately someone else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction.” Twenty-six innocent people are still dead. Mr. Trump is right that it could have “been much worse” — the presence of multiple active shooters in such a scene could easily have complicated the task of any law enforcement that arrived and put others at risk.

President Trump may never be willing to acknowledge the obvious, that the easy availability of such terrible weapons contributes to innocent death after innocent death. But the rest of us need not be so blinded to the danger posed by weapons like the one Kelley used to murder children, like the ones Stephen Paddock used to hail bullets onto concertgoers in Las Vegas, like Omar Mateen used to kill scores of people in an Orlando club, like Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik used in San Bernardino or like Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Madmen will always find ways to inflict casualties — last week’s slaughter when Sayfullo Saipov allegedly drove a rented truck onto a New York City bike path testifies to that. But assault weapons serve no purpose but to kill. We have banned them nationally before, and we should do so again.

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