THE national “idolisation” of violence in the United States was denounced by a group of bishops after at least 26 people were killed, and dozens more were injured, by a disturbed ex-serviceman who opened fire on the congregation of First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, in Texas, on Sunday.
The bishops also spoke of the frequency with which the perpetrators of such crimes in the US had a background of domestic violence. “Thoughts and prayers” from the shapers of public policy were not enough, they said.
Among the dead was the 14-year-old daughter of the pastor, Frank Pomeroy, who was not present; a five-year-old child; elderly churchgoers; and a pregnant woman whose three children, brother-in-law, and niece were also killed. Two people died outside the church, 23 inside, and one in hospital from their wounds.
The suspect was named by local sources as Devin Patrick Kelley, a 26-year-old ex-Air Force serviceman who had been discharged for bad conduct in 2014 after being court-martialled for domestic assault two years previously.
Legal documents that have since emerged report that he had threatened his wife and their stepson repeatedly with loaded and unloaded firearms; had kicked and choked his wife; and had beaten the child until his life was in danger. It has also been reported that he escaped from a secure mental-health facility in 2012.
The Pentagon confirmed that this record had not been included in a national database used by licensed gun-sellers in conducting background checks on potential customers. It is illegal to sell or give a gun to a person convicted of a crime involving domestic violence in the US.
Kelly had been able to buy a firearm every year since being discharged.
Reportedly dressed in black with a bullet-proof vest, he opened fire on the congregation at the morning service, while his vehicle was outside with the engine running. A six-year-old boy who was shot four times was among the 20 people who were injured.
The suspect was found dead in his vehicle from a self-inflicted gun wound to the head shortly afterwards. Officials have suggested that the attack may have been motivated by a domestic dispute.
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, the Most Revd Michael Curry, gave a blessing to the victims via video from Aberdeen, Scotland, where he had been giving thanks at St Andrew’s Cathedral for ties with the Scottish Episcopal Church.
“But even as we gave thanks we heard word that a gunman in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had entered First Baptist Church, and some 26 people have been killed, maybe more wounded and afflicted,” he said. “So I offer this prayer for those who have died; for those who are suffering; for those who are still healing from physical wounds and the emotional, spiritual, and mental scars.
“And as I pray and invite you to pray the prayer our Lord taught us, I invite you to pray that God’s will be done; that God might guide us to find a better way; to find concrete steps so that this kind of thing does not happen again. But, above all, we pray for those who have suffered, and those who have died.”
Bishop Curry is also a member of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a group of more than 70 Episcopal bishops who are working to curtail liberal gun laws in the country. In a statement condemning the attack, the bishops said that the US must make amends for its “idolisation” of all forms of violence.
“As a nation, we must acknowledge that we idolize violence, and we must make amends. Violence of all kinds denigrates humankind; it stands against the will of God and the way of Jesus the Christ,” the statement read.
“The shooting in Sutherland Springs brings the issue of domestic violence, a common thread in many mass killings, into sharp relief. It is not only essential that we keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, but that we, as a society, reject ideologies of male dominance that permeate our culture and the history of our churches.
“Each of us has a role to play in our repentance. Elected representatives bear the responsibility of passing legislation that protects our citizenry. If our representatives are not up to this responsibility, we must replace them.”
Reuters reported that the suspect had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law immediately before entering the church, armed with a semi-automatic rifle.
On leaving the building, he was shot twice — in the leg and torso — by an armed resident, Stephen Willeford, before being pursued at high speed by the police and a motorist, Johnnie Langendorff, who had been driving past the scene. Two handguns were retrieved from the suspect’s vehicle.
Crime scene: First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, screened off behind a police cordon on Monday
The Bishop of Dallas, the Rt Revd George Sumner, said: “Our prayers are with our brothers and sisters of the congregation of First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, the bereaved, the wounded, all responders, and the community at large. May the souls of all the departed, by the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops extended their prayers and condolences to the victims, families, first responders, and the Baptist community in the US.
“This incomprehensibly tragic event joins an ever-growing list of mass shootings, some of which were also at churches, while people were worshipping and at prayer,” its president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, said in a statement.
“We must come to the firm determination that there is a fundamental problem in our society. A Culture of Life cannot tolerate, and must prevent, senseless gun violence in all its forms. May the Lord, who himself is peace, send us his spirit of charity and nonviolence to nurture his peace among us all.”
The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, questioned the “root causes” of the violence. “As weapons become ever more devastating and accessible, and extremist rhetoric augments into extremist action, we must condemn the disregard for human life,” he said.
“Such violence is so painful to confront when it is senselessly focused on people who are worshipping in a place they feel safe to gather as a community to express their faith. How do we cope and respond? We cannot necessarily ease someone’s pain but we can walk beside them, whether we are their neighbour across the street or we are thousands of miles away.”
President Trump said that the incident was not a “gun situation” but about the mental health of the attacker. “I think that mental health is a problem here,” he told reporters at the end of a two-day state visit to Japan. “Based on preliminary reports, this was a very deranged individual with a lot of problems over a very long period.”
Meanwhile, the Texas attorney-general, Ken Paxton, a Republican, told Fox News shortly after the attack that congregations should be armed or hire “professional security” to address the threat of violence.
Bishops United Against Gun Violence concluded: “We ask that in honour of our many murdered dead, elected leaders who behave as though successive episodes of mass slaughter are simply the price our nation pays for freedom stop the reflexive and corrosive repetition of the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’.
“One does not offer prayers in lieu of demonstrating political courage, but rather in preparation.”