Texas shooting brings familiar response on Capitol Hill

Texas shooting brings familiar response on Capitol Hill
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Congress returned to Washington on Monday facing the grim and all-too-frequent task of consoling a country rocked by yet another shooting massacre, this one at a small church in rural Texas. 

But beyond the rudimentary calls for solidarity in the face of unspeakable violence, there was little unity in the nation’s capital, as lawmakers quickly adopted the familiar postures that have left the parties diametrically opposed when it comes to Congress’s role in battling rampant gun deaths.

Republicans, behind President Trump, quickly shifted the debate from firearms to mental health. Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo, the president lamented the “very sad event,” but rejected the notion that the nation’s gun laws are too lax.

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“This isn’t a guns situation,” Trump said.

Democrats pointed to Sunday’s shooting as just the latest evidence that guns fall too easily into the hands of those with violent intent. They’re accusing GOP leaders of sitting idly by out of fear of the gun lobby while the death tolls mount.

“It is inexcusable for us to offer our sympathy but not take any action to prevent the next tragedy,” said Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats, GOP poised to pounce on Mueller findings GOP trapped between Trump and Dems on spending Wasserman Schultz: 'We need a President, not a comic book villain' MORE (Md.), the Democratic whip. 

The entrenched discord over the scope of Second Amendment rights is hardly new, though it foreshadows yet another season of angry debate and congressional inaction even as the country reels from Sunday’s massacre in Texas. For some gun reformers, the mood is one of simple resignation.

“I’ve been here for a number of these massacres and Congress does not act. There's a solid majority of the Congress that does not believe that any further gun regulation is necessary,” said Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingMcCarthy holds courtesy meeting with ex-Rep. Grimm Dem rep calls for 'happy medium' on immigration Republicans defend McCain amid Trump attacks MORE (R-N.Y.), who on Friday introduced legislation with Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) that would expand background checks prior to gun sales. 

“I disagree with them, but that's the majority of Congress.” 

Yet even for a nation grown numb from mass shootings, Sunday’s massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was extraordinarily shocking. Twenty-six parishioners were killed, and 20 others injured, when a lone gunman, feuding with his in-laws, entered the service with a military-style rifle and began firing indiscriminately. Those killed ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years, and 14 others remain either in serious or critical condition, according to Freeman Martin, regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who briefed reporters from Sutherland Springs Monday morning. 

The suspect, 26-year-old Devin Kelley, had previously served in the Air Force but was court-martialed in 2012 for an assault on his wife and step-son. Kelley was confined by the military for a year, and later discharged for “bad conduct,” according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. He died in his Ford Expedition after fleeing the church from what law enforcers suspect was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The Air Force acknowledged Monday evening that Kelley's court-martial barred him from buying or owning guns, but officials failed to submit those records to the federal database that might have blocked the sales. 
 
"Federal law prohibited him from buying or possessing firearms after this conviction," Stefanek said in a statement.
 
The Defense Department has launched an investigation into the Air Force mishandling of those criminal records, and will conduct a similar review across the Pentagon. 
 
Kelley's “bad conduct” designation –– different from a dishonorable discharge — may have played a crucial role in his ability to obtain his firearms. While licensed gun dealer are required to screen potential buyers through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI database, the federal background check form asks only if the applicant has “been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions” — a technicality Kelley appears to have eluded.
 
Freeman said that Kelley had undergone extensive screening to get an “unarmed private security license,” and “there were no disqualifiers” to raise red flags.

“Private security background checks including fingerprints and criminal history checks for the Texas Crime Information Center and the National Crime Information Center databases were checked and he was cleared,” Freeman said. 

Fred Milanowski, special agent in charge of the Houston office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), said the agency is still investigating Kelley’s legal right to bear arms.

“Until we can get all the documentation, to determine exactly what his discharge was, and exactly what his conviction in the military [was], we will not have a determination on if this individual was prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms,” Milanowski said.

There's no way to know if Kelley would have found a way to obtain firearms if the Air Force had submitted his criminal history to the database. (Not all gun purchases require background checks, creating a huge loophole for buyers with a history like Kelley's). But the oversight seems to have made the process easier. 
 
Kelley had purchased four firearms between 2014 and 2017 at a rate of one per year — two in Colorado and two from the Academy Sports + Outdoors chain at separate locations in San Antonio. The company said Monday that the Texas purchases occurred in 2016 and 2017, and both sales were approved by NICS.  

Federal law stipulates that spousal abusers are barred from owning guns, and the federal form asks applicants if they’ve “been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” Kelley checked no, and was able to pass the screening.

Yet another lingering mystery is this: while Kelley was able to purchase guns through NICS without a hitch, he was denied a permit to carry a firearm in Texas, raising questions about why the state had disqualifying information the federal government did not.

“Current law, as it exists right now, should have prevented him from being able to get a gun,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) told “CBS This Morning” on Monday.

As investigators seek to answers those questions, the partisan fight over Congress’s appropriate response seems destined to go no further than the familiar finger pointing that’s accompanied similar tragedies of the past.  

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke sweeps through Virginia looking to energize campaign Disney to donate million to rebuild Notre Dame Celebs start opening their wallets for 2020 Dems MORE (R-Texas) wasted no time training his criticism on the press for “politicizing” the tragedy with questions of gun reform. And Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump, Dems prep for Mueller report's release McConnell touts Trump support, Supreme Court fights in reelection video Why Ken Cuccinelli should be Trump's choice for DHS MORE (R-Ky.), the majority leader, suggested it’s futile to legislate gun violence away.

“It's hard to envision a foolproof way to prevent individual outrages by evil people,” he told CNN.

This story was updated at 7:19 p.m.