The roots of another American horror story

November 10, 2017

Nicole Colson looks at what the media are and aren't reporting about the Texas church massacre--and the gun lobby that obstructs a real debate about the roots of violence.

A MASS shooting leaves families grieving--and many millions of people beyond them stunned and horrified. Since it was a white man doing the killing, the media immediately assures the public that at least it wasn't an act of "terror."

Some politicians, pointing out how easy it is to obtain high-tech weapons capable of killing large numbers of people, renew calls for gun control. Others, beholden to the gun lobby and a conservative base, call for more "good guys with guns." Charges of "politicizing a tragedy" fly back and forth. And the National Rifle Association declares that you can pry their guns from their cold dead hands.

With a depressing sense of déjà vu, the response to Devin Kelley's massacre in a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church on November 5 hit all the familiar points.

Something else was familiar, too: The root causes of such violence--and why it seems to have become a routine feature of modern America--are going unaddressed. And so nothing will happen to prevent more massacres in the future.

Residents of Sutherland Springs, Texas, hold a candlelight vigil
Residents of Sutherland Springs, Texas, hold a candlelight vigil

Kelley's shooting inside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland left 25 people dead, including eight members of a single family. (Texas authorities also listed the fetus of one of those killed as a 26th death.) At least 20 more were injured. The death toll alone represents about 7 percent of Sutherland's total population.

Coming just weeks after Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, the familiar questions were asked about Kelley's attack: How could someone commit such an atrocity? Were there any warning signs? What, if anything, could have been done to prevent it?

Despite his being equipped with tactical gear, at least three guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, news outlets quickly declared that Kelley wasn't a "terrorist," but a mentally ill man with a "troubled past." This line was repeated by Donald Trump, who commented, "Mental health is your problem here."

Compare that to Trump's sickening scapegoating after the Manhattan truck attack carried out by Sayfullo Saipov on October 31.

BUT EVEN setting aside the hypocrisy of the political establishment, chalking Kelley's shooting spree up to "mental illness" won't do.

For one thing, most people who commit mass murder aren't mentally ill, according to researchers, and people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violent crime. Plus, the focus on mental illness doesn't explain why massacres like Kelley's are overwhelmingly an American phenomenon.

More to the point is the all-too-common pattern of violent behavior exhibited by Kelley.

A former member of the Air Force, he received a bad conduct discharge in 2014 after being court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his first wife and "intentionally inflicting grievous bodily harm" on her toddler son in an attack that left the child with a fractured skull.

As part of his plea deal, Kelley received an 18-month cap on his military confinement and was ultimately sentenced to 12 months, followed by a bad conduct discharge.

According to the New York Times, Kelley was also accused of rape and sexual assault in 2013 in his hometown of New Braunfels, Texas, though no charges were filed. "A statement from the sheriff's office said...that the investigation had 'stalled sometime in October 2013 for reasons yet to be determined,'" reported the Times. Police believed Kelley had moved to Colorado, but apparently made no attempt to contact or arrest him.

While in Colorado, Kelley was charged with animal cruelty after witnesses saw him punch his dog and drag it into his camper. He pleaded guilty and received a deferred sentence.

Then, police in Texas received another report of abuse by Kelley, now returned to the state, after his then-girlfriend and future second wife texted a friend that she was being abused, and the friend called police. When the victim refused to make a complaint, police chalked it up to a "misunderstanding," Sheriff Mark Reynolds told NBC News.

What does it say that a man's abuse of a dog seemed to be treated with more weight by authorities than his reported rape of a woman and brutality toward his family?

UNDER FEDERAL law, people convicted of either a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than a year or a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence are supposed to be barred from possessing a firearm.

Kelley's conviction for assaulting his first wife and stepson should have qualified under both categories. So how is it that he could have legally purchased not one, but four guns--two in Texas and two in Colorado--since his military discharge?

Apparently because the Department of Defense failed to report his crimes to any of the three databases used for such background checks. According to the New York Times, "The Department of Defense has reported only one domestic violence case to the federal database for gun purchase background checks, records show. It has reported 11,000 service members to the database, but almost all of them were because of dishonorable discharges," which Kelley did not receive.

This wasn't an "error," as the Times called it in a headline. It was a deliberate omission--one more sign of the failure of a society steeped in violence to take domestic violence, and especially violence against women, seriously.

Experts say there is a direct link between domestic violence and mass shootings. "While perpetrators of domestic violence account for only about 10 percent of all gun violence, they accounted for 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016," NPR reported, citing data from the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

As journalist Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women's Media Center Speech Project, explained to Democracy Now!:

[W]e see this pattern over and over again, which is one in which the incidence of domestic violence is minimized or trivialized in some way. It's not considered serious enough to merit sustained public attention or the allocation of resources so that we can really understand the dynamic better...[T]here's absolutely no doubt that the practice of violence within a home--in an intimate setting, with people that theoretically the aggressor loves--opens the floodgates to public violence.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, the right wing met Devin Kelley's rampage with accusations that anyone raising the need for stricter gun control laws was "politicizing" a tragedy.

That's what Trump's Press Secretary Kellyanne Conway immediately claimed. The White House pushed similar talking points after Stephen Paddock's massacre in Las Vegas--though not, of course, after the Manhattan truck attack.

Yet Trump himself went on to declare that stricter gun control laws would have resulted in "hundreds more dead" in Texas--apparently because Kelley was pursued by an armed bystander after leaving the church.

Thus, Trump led the way in "politicizing" the Texas tragedy in a calculated appeal to the right-wing base that helped elect him. In particular, his words were a gift to the National Rifle Association (NRA)--one of the most powerful lobbying groups in American politics.

The 5-million member NRA has long been an outsized player in U.S. politics thanks to the massive amounts of cash it funnels to various politicians and candidates during each election cycle. Despite opinion polls showing broad support from both Democrats and Republicans for some gun control measures, attempts to pass such laws are routinely frustrated by politicians who feed at the NRA trough.

But the organization's role in the Trump era is even more central because its primary strategy for stopping limits on gun ownership is to feed the toxic reactionary ideas embraced by Trump and the right wing of the Republican Party.

Recently, the NRA tried to whip up paranoia in a series of ads pushing the idea that the left is coming to snatch the guns of law-abiding citizens. The group's most recent such ad, released in late October, declares that various forces in the "highest levels of, universities and billionaires" are "driv[ing] their daggers through the heart of our future" so they can "build their utopia from the ashes of what they've burned down."

However, states the NRA spokesperson, these dark forces "will perish in the political flames of their own fires."

This menacing rhetoric is no departure from the organization's past. Once a relatively benign group dedicated to gun education, the NRA's rise to political prominence came in the 1970s when its leaders embraced the racist fears of members in the wake of the urban rebellions of African Americans.

The NRA created its modern lobbying arm in 1975--it was headed by an anti-immigrant lawyer named Harlon Carter, who voiced the still-popular talking point: "You don't stop crime by attacking guns. You stop crime by stopping criminals."

In 1977, Carter organized his wing of the NRA to take control of the organization. Taking advantage of loopholes in campaign finance regulations, the group would funnel huge sums of money to conservative politicians--including Ronald Reagan.

The NRA took credit for Reagan's victory in 1980--the year when Reagan famously began his campaign with a racist state's rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Ironically enough, as governor of California, Reagan supported gun control legislation in response to the supposed threat posed by the Black Panthers and their practice of armed community patrols to police the police.

"The NRA didn't get swept up in the culture wars of the past century so much as it helped invent them--and kept inflaming them," Washington Post writers noted in a recent feature. "Today it is arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in the nation's capital and certainly one of the most feared."

UNFORTUNATELY, THE understandable dismay that many liberals and progressives feel in response to the NRA's actions and message can obscure what needs to be a much larger conversation about the roots of violence in U.S. life.

Among other topics, it should include: frustration and alienation that result from poverty, overwork and underemployment; lack of affordable health care and other resources for those suffering from mental health issues and addiction; lack of support for victims of domestic violence; lack of respite care for those taking care for elderly or disabled family members; and the crime that has its roots in poverty and which claims so many lives each day, including a large number of the youngest victims of gun violence.

These issues alone show why gun control laws won't effectively prevent violence in a violent society--though they do often put more power to repress in the hands of a state machine that is part of the problem.

But there is more to the debate. Any attempt to deal with a massacre like the one committed by Devin Kelley would have to examine the role played by a government that is, as Martin Luther King once said, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

In the name of an endless "war on terror," the U.S. government drops bombs on people around the globe and turns young people into killing machines--and then its leaders act surprised when that violence comes home.

In such a society, it's no wonder that we are confronted with one outbreak after another in the American epidemic of deadly violence.

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