McClatchy's America

As gun law debates rage, most agree ‘you cannot legislate evil’

Concerts. Football watch parties. Baseball parks. Churches.

These days, it seems no where is safe.

This year alone, more than 530 people have been shot and killed in mass shootings, including a week ago at a tiny rural church in Sutherland Springs, outside of San Antonio, leaving our nation saddened, confused and pointing fingers.

Each time, even before many have had time to mourn the lives lost, the issue turns political.

Some Democrats call for action, saying more restrictions are needed.

Some Republicans say this is not the right time for those discussions.

“If not now, when?” asked state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, during a recent news conference at the Texas Capitol where he said the state should ban the open carry of long guns. “Politics is not a dirty word. We can have conversations around ideas.”

But one underlying question persists: Would a change in gun laws have prevented these and other shootings?

“You cannot legislate evil,” said Jeff Halstead, the former Fort Worth police chief who is founder of the Las Vegas-based Halstead Group security firm. “No matter what we do — state laws, federal laws — you will never convince that person who is so inherently evil to change his or her mind.”

The issue of gun control is a highly charged and emotional issue for many — especially in Texas, where guns, concealed or openly carried, are allowed in many places and lawmakers continue to push to expand laws.

The topic is undeniably polarizing and political debates follow mass shootings like a dark cloud, aching to burst.

“Unfortunately, the issue becomes so heavily politicized and that produces more anger,” Halstead said.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Terry Holcomb, a Republican, Texas pastor and executive director of Texas Carry, a gun rights group. “Every time evil perpetuates itself with a gun, we have to have this conversation.

“If you take the gun out of the equation, something else takes its place. That’s a fact. What do we do to address the violence issue in the nation? That’s a hard question to answer.”

A national stockpile

Guns, from shotguns to pistols to semi-automatic rifles, are everywhere — leaning against walls in closets, safely locked up in gun cabinets and tucked away in car trunks. They can be purchased in stores, at gun shows and from a buddy looking to make a few bucks.

They are worn openly in Texas, a state that has long embraced a person’s right to bear arms.

A 2013 estimate from the Pew Research Center shows that there are between 270 million and 310 million guns in the United States, which are owned by slightly more than one-third of Americans.

Statistics weren’t available for Texas, but high-powered rifles will be on full display this weekend when hundreds of thousands of hunters try to harvest a nice buck. Last year more than 738,000 people hunted deer in Texas, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Those hunters are required to have a hunting license, but not a gun license, unless they have a License to Carry.

Statewide, around 1.2 million people — including more than 83,508 in Tarrant County — have a License to Carry, Texas Department of Public Safety records show.

And this year, through October, there were more than 1.2 million background checks for potential gun buyers in Texas, according to the National Instant Background Check System.

Gun sales are often cyclical and usually tied to politics.

After President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012, gun owners flocked to gun stores to load up on guns and ammo. Many feared the Obama might push for new gun control measures, including strict bans on semiautomatic and automatic weapons.

Obama did sign an executive order calling for mandatory criminal background checks on people making gun purchases.

But even laws with the best intentions fail, as was seen in the recent shooting in Sutherland Springs.

The gunman, Devin Kelley, was in the Air Force and stationed in New Mexico in 2012 when he was court-martialed on domestic violence charges, crimes that should have kept him from legally purchasing guns.

But Air Force officials acknowledged that they had failed to enter Kelley’s domestic violence court-martial into a federal database, which kept the door open for him to purchase the rifle used in the massacre.

Recent shootings

The recent shootings have been staggering.

On Nov. 5, Kelley went to the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs and shot person after person, leaving 26 dead and nearly two dozen more wounded. A man nearby — Stephen Wileford — heard the noise, went home, grabbed his rifle and shot at Kelley. He and another man in a pickup chased Kelley, who later was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot.

las vegas
Flowers, candles and other items surround the famous Las Vegas sign at a makeshift memorial for victims of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock opened fire on an outdoor country music concert killing dozens and injuring hundreds. John Locher AP

On Oct. 1, Stephen Paddock, a gunman with Texas ties, fired hundreds of rounds of bullets into a crowd of more than 20,000 country music concert-goers in Last Vegas from the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel. More than 55 people died and more than 450 were wounded during the Las Vegas massacre. Paddock was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot.

On Sept. 10, Spencer Hight shot and killed eight people, including his estranged wife, at a Plano home where friends had gathered to cook out and watch a Dallas Cowboys football game on TV. Hight was eventually killed by police at the scene.

On June 14, James Hodgkinson shot at two dozen Republican members of Congress practicing for a charity baseball game at a ball field in Alexandria, Va., putting a handful of people, including Capitol Hill Police officers, in the hospital before he was shot. Hodgkinson later died at the hospital. North Texas U.S. Reps. Joe Barton of Ennis and Roger Williams of Austin were among those shot at, but not hit, during the practice.

“It truly does seem unreal for us to be facing the largest mass shooting in Texas history while we are still recovering from the largest mass shooting in American history last month in Las Vegas,” said Nicole Golden, Austin Group Leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “In just five weeks, we’ve seen two of the deadliest shootings ... and Congress has done nothing.”

As many across the world pray for the victims, President Donald Trump said this isn’t the time to discuss the issue.

Thoughts and prayers are good, said Rabbi Steven Folberg of Austin, but they’re not enough.

“May we pray the prayer of action and may our prayers bear the fruits of safety and of healing and of life,” he said during the news conference at the Texas Capitol.

Gun control bill

After the Las Vegas massacre, there was a push to ban bump stocks — attachments used to make semi-automatic rifles mimic fully automatic weapons — but movement in Congress on that has slowed.

After the Sutherland Springs shooting, Senate Democrats introduced a gun control bill geared to ban assault-style weapons and ammunition by making it a crime to sell more than 200 types of semi-automatic weapons and magazines that carry more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. Jay Janner TNS

“We’re introducing an updated Assault Weapons Ban for one reason — so that after every mass shooting with a military-style assault weapon, the American people will know that a tool to reduce these massacres is sitting in the Senate, ready for debate and a vote,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement.

But restrictions are not the solution, said Kenny Frazier, owner of the Crazy Gun Dealer in Alvarado.

“If you ban guns, only criminals will have them,” he said.

And if guns vanished, crime and violence wouldn’t stop, Frazier said.

“Criminals would use knives and swords, and then, if we could make them disappear, criminals would use stones,” he said. “Guns are not the cause of the crime. But they do give honest citizens the chance to fight back and defend themselves instead of being weak, easy prey for the predators.”

More than that, Frazier said, every weapon used to kill people — from rental trucks used to run into people to pressure cookers wrongly used to make bombs — can’t be banned.

“How about fire? Fire changed all life on earth for the better, but when employed for harm, fire can be massively deadly,” he said. “Where does the lunacy stop?”

Background checks

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is working on a bill to make sure federal agencies properly register criminal records in the nationwide FBI data base — the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — used for background checks on potential gun buyers.

Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, joined at right by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., answers a question about the mass shooting at a Texas church this week, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. J. Scott Applewhite AP

Cornyn began talking about his plan after an investigation showed that the Sutherland Springs gunman was discharged from the Air Force for bad conduct and his conviction for domestic abuse should have been in the database. That would have prevented him from buying four firearms between 2014 and 2017.

“Unfortunately, (there are) a number of instances where current law and a system currently in place to protect people...has failed,” Cornyn said in a recent conference call. “We need to fix it as soon as we can.”

Barton, who managed the baseball team that was shot at earlier this year, has called on colleagues to change the rhetoric in politics.

Not only that, but “we must continue to take a serious look at gun violence in America,” Barton, whose district includes parts of Arlington, said.

“I support the efforts of Sen. Cornyn to improve background checks and reporting databases. Additionally, we must examine mental health reviews and ensure that we can identify those most at risk and place them in a criminal background check system.”

Turn to the community

“Clearly, the status quo of mass shootings that occur with increasing frequency is unacceptable,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Fort Worth.

He said universal background checks and banning bump stocks is a start. But he, too, said the spectrum of mental health issues must also be reviewed.

Do these shooters show signs of the violence that is about to come? Is their hate a slow burn or a rolling boil? Could they have been stopped?

The questions are much easier to ask than answer.

“Evil people do evil things,” said Ed Scruggs, vice chairman of Texas Gun Sense. “But we have a responsibility to intervene. Gun violence is a bipartisan issue. People are not taking it seriously enough. ... Anything we can do ... will make a difference.”

But Holcomb said he doesn’t believe it’s up to the government to solve the problem of growing violence.

A solution should come from regular citizens across the country talking to each other.

“The hate that is being spread across this nation through the media or our highest level of political discourse is not healthy,” Holcomb said. “This is a people issue.”

Halstead said that’s a perfect solution — remove politicians and political agendas from the conversation.

“Put it in the hands of community leaders, neighbors and families,” he said. “The minute you have a Trump or Pelosi involved, about a third of the people in the country will automatically hate what they have to say.

“Let’s get fair-minded community leaders (working) ... in focus groups that can really speak for our community,” Halstead said. “There are things going on in our nation that require this to be the optimal time.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley