Just months after Texas was hit by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, a deadly mass shooting rocked the state leaving 26 dead and around 20 injured.
On Sunday, November 5, a man dressed in black tactical-style gear opened fire inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas making the event the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history. Those who passed away range from ages 5-to-72-years-old.
The shooter, identified as Devin Kelley, 26-year-old white male, crossed the street and began firing a Ruger AR rifle at the church and continued firing as he entered where the church’s 11 a.m. service was underway.
“You’ve got your pews on either side. He just walked down the center aisle, turned around and from my understanding, was shooting on his way back out,” said Wilson County Sherriff Joe D. Tackitt Jr.
“It’s unbelievable to see children, men and women, laying there. Defenseless people. I guess it was seeing the children that were killed. It’s one thing to see an adult, but to see a 5-year-old …”
As Kelley left the church, he was confronted by an armed local resident, which later led to the two engaging in gunfire.
When Texas police responded to the scene, a car chase began. Later, Kelley was reported dead due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
According to official records, the shooter was a former U.S. Air Force member who served from 2010 to 2014. However, the Air Force veteran had a history of abuse. In 2012, he was court-martialed for two counts of assault on his then-wife Danielle Shields and their child.
The New York Times (NYT) reported that Kelley escaped from a psychiatric hospital while in the Air Force, after making death threats against his superiors and attempting to smuggle weapons onto the base where he was stationed. He was sent to Peak Behavioral Health Services in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, after pleading guilty to the assault charges.
NYT said that after the escape, El Paso officers filed a report stating that the person reporting Kelley missing said he “suffered from mental disorders” and “was a danger to himself and others…”
As of press time, no motive for the shooter has been released, however, Kelley’s ex-wife Shields and her parents attended the church from time-to-time. It has not been released whether or not members of the family were at the church during the historic shooting.
As a response to the domestic terrorism, President Donald Trump stated that he believes the shooting was caused by a “mental health problem,” instead of addressing the gun law issues in the United States.
“This isn’t a guns situation, this is a mental health problem at the highest level…it’s a very, very sad event,” said Trump.
“This act of evil occurred as the victims and their families were in their place of sacred worship. We cannot put into words the pain and grief we all feel and we cannot begin to imagine the suffering of those who lost the ones they love. We pull together. We join hands, we lock arms and through the tears and through the sadness we stand strong, oh so strong.”
Offering his condolences to the victims of the horrific tragedy, Bishop Charles E. Blake, presiding prelate of the Church of God in Christ, Inc., and pastor of West Angeles COGIC, said, “With heavy hearts, we earnestly pray for the families and loved ones of the 26 people killed at a house of worship in Sutherland Springs, Texas from another futile act of violence and disregard for precious human life.
“While we may never comprehend the evils among us, may we be ever comforted in knowing that the Creator surely bears our griefs and our sorrows. We pray that a supernatural outpouring of peace, tolerance and love would cover our nation and the world, even now. God be with us all.”
Due to the recent and past shootings, religious leaders and congregations across the U.S. are preparing and discussing safety plans and protocols.
Unfortunately, church shootings are becoming a ‘norm.’ In June of 2015, a white man opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina killing nine people, including the pastor during a prayer meeting.
The suspect, Dylann Roof, was arrested and charged with nine counts of murder and one count possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime.
“You get up to go to church in the morning and you’re in heaven by the end of the day. That’s scary,” said Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer, the pastor of Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood.
The Los Angeles Sentinel spoke with Ulmer on the recent shooting and the steps the congregation can take to prepare themselves.
“I think churches must first realize the times in which we live,” he said.
“These really are troublesome times. These are tough times, but they are opportunity times. What should the church do? I think we ought to prepare our children for the reality of the world that your mind has to be reprogrammed to think higher. How do I serve others? How do I get my life in a position to help others? How do I look beyond myself to help someone else?”
Bishop Ulmer went on to say that certain laws that “accommodate certain violence and certain attitudes that are contradictory to the very liberties that we say we fight for” need to be addressed.
“I think it comes down to our homes and our families. There’s a generation that’s in jeopardy and yet a generation that can change this world,” he said.
“We’ve got to raise up more political leaders, community leaders and fathers in the homes. We must raise a generation of boys to prepare our young men as fathers, leaders and as change agents in our community.”
The Inglewood pastor also touched on church security.
“I don’t know of very many churches that don’t have some level of security. That’s the reality of the times. We must recognize that our life is lived not just in the church,” he said.
Although Trump’s stance on the Texas shooting stands firm on being mental health related, political figures, church leaders and organization’s believe otherwise.
Recently, the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) released a statement addressing the First Baptist Church Massacre and the gun violence epidemic. The statement urges Congress to allow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct gun violence and prevention research, and suicide prevention.
“At the federal and/or state level, where applicable, NACCHO supports common- sense approaches to stem the tide of violence, including conducting background checks on all gun purchases, preventing individuals most at risk of violence from purchasing guns, banning assault weapons and large ammunition magazines, and engaging in research about how to effectively address violence,” said Laura Hanen, spokesperson for NAACHO and interim executive director and chief of government affairs.
“Moreover, health officials, government leaders, law enforcement, faith communities, and concerned citizens, including lawful gun owners, must come together to address the social and cultural issues that cause individuals to, far too often, resort to violence. Indeed, we need a public health approach to the violence epidemic. While none of these steps will stop all gun violence or prevent all mass shootings, they will be a significant step in turning the tide.”
Sentinel Staff Writer Cora Jackson-Fossett contributed to this article.