The nation is trying to make sense of yet another mass murder, this time in the rural Texas town of Sutherland Springs, where a gunman dressed in black tactical gear attacked a service at a small Baptist church with a Ruger AR assault rifle on Sunday. The attack left at least 26 men, women and children dead, and 20 others wounded.
The suspect in the shooting, a 26-year-old former Air Force member named Devin Patrick Kelley, was found dead after crashing his vehicle and apparently shooting himself, according to reports. Kelley fled the scene after exiting the church and exchanging fire with an armed bystander, who waved down a vehicle and pursued Kelley in a car chase.
Details about Kelley continue to emerge, with multiple outlets reporting that he was court martialed and jailed after assaulting his wife and child while working at an Air Force base in New Mexico. He received a “bad conduct discharge” for domestic violence and left the military in 2014. He divorced his wife and remarried around the same time, according to The New York Times.
Police have yet to state a motive for the attack. Reports indicate Kelley had recently had a dispute with in-laws who live in a nearby town and had attended the church on several occasions, but they were not at the church on Sunday.
It has been just over a month since the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 400 people injured and 58 people dead. The shooting in Texas is the 307th mass shooting in the United States this year, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.
The political response in Washington has fallen along predictable party lines. Republican lawmakers have offered mere prayers and condolences, and have in some cases blamed the shooting on the perpetrator’s “mental health.” Meanwhile, a chorus of Democrats is once again calling on Congress to take action on gun control.
“The terrifying fact is that no one is safe so long as Congress chooses to do absolutely nothing in the face of this epidemic,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), in a statement attacking lawmakers who act on behalf of the gun lobby. “The time is now for Congress to shed its cowardly cover and do something.”
President Trump, whose remaining base of support includes hardcore gun control opponents and the National Rifle Association, dismissed the idea that easy access to military-grade firearms had anything to do with the latest mass shooting. Instead, he attempted to blame the massacre on the “mental health” of a “very deranged individual.”
“This isn’t a guns situation,” said President Trump, who is currently visiting Japan. “This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event.”
Mental health conditions are quite common — about one in five adults in the US has at least one. Lumping mass murderers in with people with mental health conditions reinforces harmful stigma around mental health. In fact, Trump himself was the subject of such “mental illness” scapegoating when opponents questioned his mental health after he took office.
“It’s an insult to people who have real mental illness to be lumped with Trump,” Dr. Allen Frances, who wrote the clinical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, told Truthout’s Kelly Hayes in February.
People with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence.
Gun control has become, in some ways, a political football, thrown back-and-forth on Capitol Hill after every mass shooting. In the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, where a student killed 32 people and injured 17 others in two separate attacks, Congress bolstered the national background check program. The Republican-led Congress repealed the rules earlier this year with legislation signed by Trump.
In her statement calling on Congress to act, House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Americans “must resolve to denounce all forms of hatred and violence and to drive them from our communities and our nation.” Although Pelosi offered no ideas for achieving such a goal, it’s clear that legislation alone will not be enough.
Few public officials have drawn attention to how the larger forces of violence such as militarism, misogyny and state violence may impact individual acts of violence like this one. As mass shootings continue, there remains a marked lack of public discussion around the deeper roots of violence, and how to eradicate them.