Texas weeps today.
In a small house of worship in a bucolic small town – one of those where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and that’s just fine – a gunman with a military-style rifle methodically opened fire Sunday morning. When he was done, 26 people lay lifeless inside a Baptist church. The dead ranged from 18 months to 77 years of age and included as many as 14 children and a pregnant woman, investigators said.
Lest we become numb to this kind of carnage, let that sink in for a moment. The victims had come to the sanctuary to pray and worship. The gunman had come intent on slaughtering them.
The carnage left even hardened law enforcement officers reeling. Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said investigators found blood everywhere.
“Wherever you walked in the church, there was death,” Tackitt said. “It’s hard enough to see an adult. But when you see babies — I’m talking, you know, 3, 4, 5 and 6 years old, 10 years old — it’s just hard.”
Another horrific mass shooting in a string of massacres in America, this one hit closer to home, in Sutherland Springs, southeast of San Antonio. The deadliest in Texas history, it came just 35 days after another massacre with a different dubious distinction: the deadliest mass shooting in American history. That one in Las Vegas left 58 people dead and hundreds wounded.
Law enforcement officials believe the gunman, Devin Kelley, may have been motivated by “a domestic situation” and that his in-laws and estranged wife attended the church. In the coming days, investigators will seek to unravel answers to a motive and many other questions, like how the shooter was able to get a gun.
“By all the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun,” Gov. Greg Abbott said. “So how did this happen?”
Kelley’s 2012 conviction for assaulting his wife and child should have barred him from buying the rifle used in the massacre. The Air Force failed to enter Kelley’s domestic violence court-martial into a national database that would have prevented him from buying weapons.
Texans, like all Americans, grieve for the victims and their families, and extend their condolences. All of us are trying to come to terms with such unspeakable horror. How could it happen in our own backyard?
“In God’s backyard,” a reader said on the New York Times’ website.
The website features a clock that is counting the number of hours, minutes and seconds since Sunday’s shooting. The Times’ editorial board is calling for Congress to act on gun control.
But it is “mental health,” not guns, that is behind the Texas mass shooting, President Trump said Sunday in Tokyo, calling the shooter “deranged.”
“I think mental health is the problem here. This isn’t a guns situation,” Trump said. Bear in mind that Trump signed a bill earlier this year that gutted an Obama-era regulation making it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy guns.
In proclaiming that a massacre carried out with an assault weapon capable of unleashing lethal damage in seconds is not about guns, Trump seemed to wish to silence any talk about gun control. His words had an element of misdirection, too – the gunman may have had mental issues, but that does not alter the fact that he used a military-style weapon to kill innocent people.
The president’s reaction is something we’ve become used to seeing after each new mass shooting. Gun advocates, including many of our elected officials, are quick to admonish that it’s not the time to talk about gun control.
“We don’t need politics right now,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Monday in Sutherland Springs when questioned about gun control.
But when then?
Offering sympathies and prayers to the victims of these massacres, however well-intentioned, is not nearly enough. Not anymore. Not when deadly mass shootings occur with frightening regularity.
A church should always be a safe space, but the tragedy is that these massacres do indeed happen in our own backyards. This was not the first in a house of worship. They occur in movie theaters, at outdoor music concerts and at elementary schools.
Since a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in 2016 left 49 dead and many wounded, at least 639 people have been killed and more than 2,600 have been injured in mass shootings, according to the New York Times.
Regardless where you may stand on gun control, it is long past time to have a national conversation about how to prevent more massacres. And it is time for our elected officials to have the courage to lead.
The dead in Sutherland included mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. They included wide-eyed young children who will never again kiss their parents goodnight. Among the lasting images described by investigators is of piles of bodies inside the church — parents covering their children’s bodies. In their final moments, they had tried vainly to shield the children from lethal bullets.
Texas is heartbroken today, but we can turn our anguish into action if we demand our elected leaders address gun violence. If we do nothing, we risk more senseless and heinous slaughter.
Castillo is the American-Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at jcastillo@statesman. com or 512-445-3667.