, Sutherland Springs, United States, Nov 6 – A family dispute may have sparked the rampage by a US Air Force veteran who killed 26 people with an assault rifle in a small-town church even though he was legally prohibited from buying guns, officials said Monday.
The latest US mass shooting again raised questions about gun control but President Donald Trump dismissed them and instead praised a gun-owner who opened fire in an effort to stop the killer.
Ten people remained in critical condition a day after Devin Patrick Kelley, a 26-year-old private security guard, burst into the rural Baptist church during Sunday morning services and sprayed bullets at the congregation.
The Pentagon said it would probe why the Air Force failed to enter a domestic violence conviction into a database that could have prohibited Kelley from purchasing weapons, such as the AR-15 rifle and two handguns he had in his possession.
Investigators were focusing on reports that Kelley had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, who regularly attended the church but was not there during the assault.
Victims of the massacre included an unborn baby, an 18-month-old toddler, eight members of a single family, and reportedly the gunman’s grandmother-in-law. Twenty people were wounded.
The authorities said Kelley may have died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head after using his car to flee the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, a rural community of rolling hills and ranches of nearly 400 people near San Antonio.
Two men — Stephen Willeford, 55, and Johnnie Langendorff, 27 — were lauded as heroes for confronting Kelley after he mowed down nearly 50 churchgoers with gunfire.
Willeford grabbed his own AR-15 rifle and shot and wounded Kelley as he emerged from the church and headed for his car.
Willeford then flagged down a passing pickup truck driven by Langendorff and they pursued Kelley at high speed until he crashed his vehicle into a field.
On a visit to South Korea, Trump said that if the “very brave” Willeford had not been armed, “instead of having 26 dead, you would have had hundreds more dead.”
Stricter background checks, however, would have made “no difference” in averting the tragedy, he suggested.
Trump earlier said the latest shooting “isn’t a guns situation” but rather a “mental health problem at the highest level.”
– ‘Domestic situation’ –
Sunday’s carnage came five weeks after the worst gun massacre in modern US history, when a retired accountant opened fire on a country music concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 people.
“This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs,” Freeman Martin of the Texas Department of Public Safety said.
“There was a domestic situation going on with the family and in-laws… We know that he expressed anger toward his mother-in-law.”
Governor Greg Abbott said Kelley was “a man who had some mental health issues apparently long before this.”
According to the Air Force, Kelley served at a base in New Mexico starting in 2010 before being court-martialed in 2012.
He was sentenced to 12 months in confinement and received a “bad conduct” discharge in 2014, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.
But “initial information indicates that Kelley’s domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Criminal Information Center database by the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations,” she added.
Republican Senator John McCain said the Senate Armed Services Committee which he chairs “will conduct rigorous oversight” of the military’s investigation into the failure to report Kelley’s conviction.
Officials said Kelley was armed with a Ruger AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and had two handguns in his vehicle, a Glock 9mm and a Ruger .22.
– Twenty-six white crosses –
Willeford, who shot and wounded Kelley, told The Dallas Morning News he was “terrified while this was going on.”
“I didn’t want this and I want the focus to be on my friends,” he said. “I have friends in that church.”
Langendorff said he and Willeford pursued Kelley for about 10 to 12 minutes at speeds of up to 95 miles per hour.
“I had to make sure he was caught,” he told CNN.
Kelley crashed his car while being chased and was found dead inside.
About 200 people gathered in a field a few blocks from the church for a vigil on Monday evening. They sang spiritual songs, embraced and prayed. Grown men and women cried, while one woman fell on her knees in tears.
Pastors from elsewhere in Texas drove in to help those struggling to deal with the tragedy.
“Tonight we are in sorrow. Tonight we are in pain,” said Lee Thompson of the Gateway Church in Dallas.
On the other side of the field 26 white crosses were planted in the ground — one for each fatality.