In November of 2017, an armed, 26-year-old man, opened fire in a church in Sutherland Springs, TX. The official death toll is listed at 26, as one of the 25 victims was pregnant at the time of the massacre. An additional 20 congregants were injured. The killer had legally purchased his rifle the previous year. But he wasn’t supposed to have been allowed to purchase a firearm at all.
As a matter of principle, we won’t name him.
In the days following the massacre, the Air Force admitted that even though the killer was convicted by a general court martial for domestic violence, and served 12-months in confinement before his dishonorable discharge, it did not report his crimes into the FBI database. This database, referred to as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS,) contains criminal information that is taken into account in determining whether a purchaser should be allowed to buy a firearm.
Now, a federal judge has ruled in a suit brought by the victims’ families that the Air Force was found “mostly responsible” for the murders, because of this failure. The judge found the Air Force was 60% responsible, in fact. As far as we know, this is an unprecedented move.
There is an interesting passage in the ruling:
“Moreover, the evidence shows that — had the Government done its job and properly reported Kelley’s information into the background check system — it is more likely than not that Kelley would have been deterred from carrying out the Church shooting,” the ruling stated. “For these reasons, the Government bears significant responsibility for the Plaintiffs’ harm.”
Had the killer’s domestic violence conviction —which included striking and choking his ex-wife, and cracking his young stepson’s skull — been entered into NICS, that would have prevented him from legally buying a gun. When gun-rights activists talk about enforcing the laws already on the books, this is a good example of just what that means. The government failed in its responsibility to protect the public.
If the Air Force had properly entered the killer’s conviction into the NICS database, would that have guaranteed the massacre wouldn’t have happened? There is no guarantee of that, but it would have been one road block. Many criminals get their guns illegally.
Consider if the killer’s crimes had been entered into the NICS database and he was stopped from buying a gun legally. Would he have suffered any legal consequences? Sadly, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO,) very few people who fail a NICS background check are held criminally accountable. Again, what about enforcing the laws already on the books?
Instead, the federal response to tragedies like this is too frequently to ban guns for people who are not criminals. This is not acceptable.
The federal government, with all its agencies that have some level of oversight of crime, needs to clean its own house first. When the President or members of Congress respond to tragedies like these with calls for new government mandates and prohibitions, we are wise to remind them that it was their previous government so-called solutions that failed to stop the tragedy in the first place.
Perhaps the ruling in the lawsuit against the Air Force, brought by the families of the Sutherland Springs victims, will be a wakeup call.