Tuesday toon

An editorial from The Baltimore Sun:

When confronted with the second horrific mass shooting in as many months, President Donald Trump wasted no time in diverting attention from the issue at hand. Asked about the massacre of at least 26 people at a church in a tiny community near San Antonio, Mr. Trump asserted without hesitation or evidence that the shooting wasn’t “a guns situation” but a “mental health problem at the highest level.” Mr. Trump is no doubt right that the killer, Devin Patrick Kelley, was “deranged” — by definition, anyone who opens fire on innocent churchgoers must be that — but denying the other half of the equation, Mr. Kelley’s ability to wield an assault rifle capable of inflicting such damage in so short a span, is its own form of derangement.

The details that have emerged so far about Kelley’s life paint a picture of a troubled man. He was convicted in a military court of assaulting his then-wife and child in 2012, spent a year in prison and received a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force. He divorced and re-married. A Colorado animal cruelty charge for alleged mistreatment of his dog was dropped, and he reportedly moved back to his parents Texas home, which is about an hour from First Baptist Church of Southerland Springs. Authorities believe his motive may have sprung from an ongoing domestic dispute — some of his in-laws attended the church. But none were apparently there when Kelley arrived clad in black tactical gear with an AR-15-type assault rifle.

The information that has emerged so far about how he got the rifle is somewhat contradictory. CNN reports that Kelley bought the gun through a store in San Antonio and passed his background check, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters that he had tried and failed to get a Texas license to carry a gun, an application process whose qualifications largely mirror those needed to pass a federal criminal background check. “So how was it that he was able to get a gun?” Governor Abbott said. “By all the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun.”

That’s not completely clear. Federal law bars people who have been dishonorably discharged from the military from buying a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer, but Kelley’s bad conduct discharge is of a different category. Federal law bars people convicted in any court of a crime that carries a possible sentence of more than a year in jail from buying a gun, but it is not entirely clear that his assault convictions and 12-month sentence would automatically disqualify him. And although President Trump managed to diagnose his mental state based on briefings he received about the situation while traveling in Japan, there is no evidence that Kelley was ever adjudicated a “mental defective” or committed to a mental institution, either of which would have landed him on the list of people prohibited from buying a gun.

If Kelley was eligible to buy a gun, it was only just barely. Yet even so he was able to buy not just any gun but a civilian version of a military assault rifle, designed not for hunting or self defense but combat.

The story of guns in this shooting is complicated by the fact that an as-yet unnamed neighbor got his own gun and confronted Kelley after he left the church. The two exchanged gunfire, and the neighbor reportedly wounded Kelley before engaging in a high speed chase that ended several miles later when Kelley drove into a field, dead from what local authorities say was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The neighbor’s bravery is without question, but we should not let it divert us into the old NRA canard that we need more good guys with guns to combat the bad ones, as President Trump has already sought to do by noting “fortunately someone else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction.” Twenty-six innocent people are still dead. Mr. Trump is right that it could have “been much worse” — the presence of multiple active shooters in such a scene could easily have complicated the task of any law enforcement that arrived and put others at risk.

President Trump may never be willing to acknowledge the obvious, that the easy availability of such terrible weapons contributes to innocent death after innocent death. But the rest of us need not be so blinded to the danger posed by weapons like the one Kelley used to murder children, like the ones Stephen Paddock used to hail bullets onto concertgoers in Las Vegas, like Omar Mateen used to kill scores of people in an Orlando club, like Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik used in San Bernardino or like Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Madmen will always find ways to inflict casualties — last week’s slaughter when Sayfullo Saipov allegedly drove a rented truck onto a New York City bike path testifies to that. But assault weapons serve no purpose but to kill. We have banned them nationally before, and we should do so again.

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