Lapse in background check database allowed Texan church gunman to buy weapons: Pentagon

Lapse in background check database allowed Texan church gunman to buy weapons: Pentagon

By Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garza

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – The man who committed the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history was able to buy guns legally from a sporting goods store because a prior domestic violence conviction was never entered into an FBI database used in background checks, officials said.

Devin Kelley, the gunman in Sunday’s massacre at a church in rural southeastern Texas, was found guilty by court-martial of assaulting his first wife and a stepson while assigned to a U.S. Air Force logistics readiness unit in 2012, the Pentagon disclosed on Monday.

The Air Force also acknowledged that it had failed to transmit information about Kelley’s conviction to the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) system, a U.S. government data bank used by licensed firearms dealers to check prospective gun buyers for criminal backgrounds.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Freeman Martin put the number of victims killed in the attack at 26, including the unborn child of a pregnant woman who died. The dead otherwise ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years.

Twenty others were wounded, 10 of whom remained in critical condition late on Monday, officials said.

Two handguns were found in Kelley’s getaway vehicle, where he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head after a failed attempt to flee from the scene of Sunday’s shootings, Martin told a news conference on Monday night.

The Air Force opened an inquiry into how it handled the former airman’s criminal record, and the U.S. Defense Department has requested a review by its inspector general to ensure that other cases “have been reported correctly,” Pentagon officials said.

Firearms experts said the case involving Kelley, 26, who spent a year in military detention before his bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force in 2014, had exposed a previously unnoticed weak link in the system of background checks.

It is illegal under federal law to sell a gun to someone who has been convicted of a crime involving domestic violence against a spouse or child.

A sporting goods retail outlet said Kelley passed background checks when he bought a gun in 2016 and a second firearm this year.

Neither the NCIC nor two related databases contained any information that would have barred Kelley from legally buying any of three weapons police recovered from their investigation of the slayings, said Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in San Antonio.

Mass shooting at Texas church – http://tmsnrt.rs/2lZg61c

‘TEXAS HERO’

Police said Kelley stormed into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, dressed in black and wearing a human-skull mask, and opened fire on worshippers with a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle.

Kelley was shot twice – in the leg and torso – by another man, Stephen Willeford, who lived nearby and confronted Kelley with his own rifle as the gunman emerged from the church.

Kelley managed to flee in a sport utility vehicle as Willeford waved down a passing motorist, Johnnie Langendorff. The two then gave chase in Langendorff’s pickup truck until Kelley’s vehicle crashed in a ditch.

Martin later hailed Willeford as “our Texas hero,” crediting him with preventing further carnage in Sunday’s rampage, which ranks as the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in the state and one of the five most lethal in modern U.S. history.

Authorities also said Kelley had been involved in a domestic dispute of some kind with the parents of his second wife, whom he married in 2014, and had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law before the shooting.

Although his in-laws were known to occasionally attend services at the church Kelley attacked, Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said family members were not present on Sunday.

The attack stunned Sutherland Springs, a community of about 400 people. One family, the Holcombes, lost eight members from three generations in the attack, including Bryan Holcombe, an assistant pastor who was leading the service, a relative said.

The first shots came through the windows of the church, according to an account related to CNN by the son of one of the survivors, 73-year-old Farida Brown, who was shot in both legs. The assailant then stalked inside and sprayed the pews with gunfire, walking up and down the aisles targeting people even as they ran for cover or lay on the floor.

Farida Brown was in the last pew, beside a woman who was shot multiple times, her son, David Brown, said.

“She was pretty certain she was next, and her life was about to end. Then somebody with a gun showed up at the front of the church, caught the shooter’s attention. He left and that was the end of the ordeal,” David Brown told CNN.

Martin said investigators found hundreds of spent shell casings inside the church after the shooting, as well as 15 empty 30-round ammunition magazines.

Major shootings in the U.S. – http://tmsnrt.rs/2AgtU9E

(Additional reporting by Jane Ross in Sutherland Springs, Texas; Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

Fear and faith: Church security scrutinized after Texas massacre

Fear and faith: Church security scrutinized after Texas massacre

By Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garza

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – After one of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings unfolded on their doorstep, pastors and parishioners around the tiny Texas hamlet of Sutherland Springs have begun asking whether guns have a rightful place inside their houses of worship.

It is a debate that is echoing across the United States as security experts and some politicians ask churches to consider a wide range of enhanced measures to thwart tragedies like Sunday’s deadly rampage at the First Baptist Church.

Barbara Burdette, who knew the 26 people killed in the massacre and as well as the 20 wounded, is ready to see her church hire armed security, or allow congregants to carry their own concealed firearms for self-defense.

“God is our protector,” said Burdette, 62, “but I do still think that we need to have people with conceal carry.”

Her pastor at the First Baptist Church of La Vernia, a one-story brick sanctuary 7 miles from the shooting scene, said the issue of guns in church requires a delicate balance between providing safety instead of fear.

Arming parishioners is not the only option. At the historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white gunman killed nine at a June 2015 bible study session, uniformed police officers now attend regular worship services.

“It’s part of our new normal,” said Reverend Eric Manning at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, by phone. He said the church also created in-house security, as have most black churches in the region.

Muslim and Jewish institutions for years have added security measures to address the threat of violence and hate crimes. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) stresses the importance of security cameras, strong doors and clearing brush away from buildings so attackers have no place to hide.

A law enforcement vehicle prominently parked in front of a house of worship is also a strong deterrent to crime, said Claude Pichard, director of Training Force USA, which worked with churches across the country to improve security after the Charleston shooting.

The question of enabling, or even encouraging, parishioners to shoot back is a discussion particularly important to communities where guns are a part of life, such as rural Texas.

In Sutherland Springs, the shooter was confronted as he left the church by a resident who shot and wounded him.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told Fox News that churches should consider whether they wanted parishioners to be armed as a way of preventing another tragedy.

His state allows for the concealed carrying of handguns by licensed owners. It is not clear exactly how First Baptist Church, where the shooting occurred, addressed gun issues.

A sheriff in Williamson County, Texas, a two-hour drive from the massacre, expects to discuss arming parishioners at a church security summit he is organizing in the wake of the attack. He said churches have a responsibility to ensure that responding officers can distinguish a protector from the assailant.

“What are you doing to make sure we don’t have a friendly on friendly fire?” said Sheriff Robert Chody by phone.

New Life Church, a congregation of 10,000 people in Colorado Springs, Colorado, requires churchgoers to leave their guns in their vehicles, a decade after it was the scene of a deadly shooting that killed two. A parishioner trained in church security used a firearm to wound the shooter, preventing greater carnage, said pastor Brady Boyd.

“Pastors are now waking up to this reality that we are not living in Mayberry anymore,” he said, referring to the fictitious North Carolina hometown on the “Andy Griffith Show,” a long-running 1960s television comedy.

He pointed out that no church could have security in place to withstand an attack by a military-trained shooter using an assault rifle, the scenario that unfolded this weekend in Texas.

About 10 miles from the shooting, Floresville Christian Fellowship Pastor Bennie Herrera said he needed to re-examine security but knows there is only so much that can be done.

“We will not be gripped by fear,” he said. “Faith will rise up and we will come together,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Writing and additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Detroit; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)

Tennessee church shooter may have sought revenge for Charleston murders: report

The scene where people were injured when a gunman opened fire at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jamie Gilliam

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – A man accused of killing a woman in a shooting rampage at a Tennessee church this week might have acted to avenge the murders of nine black people in a South Carolina church two years ago, the Washington Post reported on Friday.

A note in the car of Emanuel Kidega Samson, 25, indicated a possible plot spurred by the fatal 2015 shootings at Emanuel AME church, a historic African-American house of worship in Charleston, the newspaper said, citing unnamed people familiar with the investigation.

Samson, who police say was wearing a mask, is accused of killing a woman in the parking lot of Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Nashville on Sunday. He shot and wounded six worshipers in the building, before shooting himself in a scuffle with an usher, police have said.

Reuters could not immediately confirm whether investigators had found the note in Samson’s vehicle.

Representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment. A Nashville police spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Dylann Roof, a 23-year-old avowed white supremacist, was convicted last year of 33 federal criminal counts related to the Charleston shooting, including murders as a hate crime.

Roof pleaded guilty earlier this year to separate state murder charges in the deaths of the nine black churchgoers he killed. He was sentenced to death.

Samson, who is black, was taken to jail after being treated at a hospital, police said, and was charged with criminal homicide.

Photos of events at the Nashville church posted on its Facebook page show people who appear to be from a range of ethnicities, including white people.

Federal authorities have opened a hate-crimes investigation into the Nashville shooting.

Samson lawfully bought a .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol, which was found in his sport utility vehicle after the shooting, Nashville officials said in a statement on Wednesday.

The other three firearms, including a .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol believed to have used to fire the shots at the church, were legally bought by a relative and given to Samson for safe-keeping, the statement said. An AR-15 rifle was found in the vehicle.

Samson attended the church in the past but not recently, church members told investigators, according to Nashville police.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Richard Chang)

Filipino bishops urge bell-ringing, prayers to protest bloody drugs war

A sign is posted outside a Catholic church which translates to "Let us pray for the victims of extrajudicial killings, bells will toll at 8:00pm" in Quezon City, metro Manila, Philippines September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) – Stepping up a campaign against President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, Catholic bishops in the Philippines have called for church bells to be rung for the next 40 nights, and congregations to light candles and pray for the killing to end.

A pastoral letter by Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) sent to priests urged Catholics to pray for victims from Saturday until All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, when Filipinos traditionally pay respects to the dead.

More than 3,800 people have been killed in anti-drugs operations in the past 15 months and at least 2,100 murders are suspected of being drug-related, according to police data, though human rights groups believe the numbers are understated.

“The relentless and bloody campaign against drugs that shows no sign of abating impels us, your bishops, to declare: In the name of God, stop the killings!” Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the head of the CBCP, said in the letter.

Such messages are typically read aloud in church or distributed to their congregations.

Many Catholic churches in the capital have already started lighting candles and ringing bells for five minutes each day at 8 p.m..

Thousands of Filipinos rallied against Duterte on Thursday to protest against what they fear is an emerging dictatorship, and several churches held mass against the killings and urged people to renounce violence.

The bishops are among the most influential dissenting voices to come out against the Duterte’s uncompromising strategy.

Having been largely silent on the issue when it first erupted last year, priests have increasingly taken a stand against the anti-drugs campaign.

As bodies started to appear nightly in Manila’s slums, the church stepped up its opposition, denouncing the killings and in some cases, providing sanctuary to witnesses of killings and drug users who feared they could be targeted.

Villegas said the country’s bishops were firmly against drugs, but killing was not the solution and prayer was “the most powerful weapon in our arsenal”.

Rights groups dispute official police accounts that say drug suspects were killed because they violently resisted arrest. Critics accuse police of executing users and small-time dealers and planting evidence, which police reject.

Pablo Virgilio David, bishop in Manila’s Caloocan City, where large numbers of drug-related killings have taken place, urged the authorities to end the killings and let healing begin.

“We disagree that we should treat them like monsters to be eliminated like stray cats and dogs,” he said of drug users and criminals. “We disagree that a criminal has no more hope of changing his life.”

(Editing by Martin Petty & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Texas churches sue FEMA for disaster relief after Harvey

FILE PHOTO: A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employee waits for the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump during a visit at FEMA headquarters in Washington, U.S., August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been sued by three Texas churches severely damaged in Hurricane Harvey, over what they called its policy of refusing to provide disaster relief to houses of worship because of their religious status.

In a complaint filed on Monday in federal court in Houston, the churches said they would like to apply for aid but it would be “futile” because FEMA’s public assistance program “categorically” excludes their claims, violating their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion.

They said FEMA’s ban on providing relief where at least half a building’s space is used for religious purposes, a policy also enforced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, contradicts a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision making it easier for religious groups to get public aid.

That June 26 decision, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc v. Comer, said U.S. states must sometimes provide such aid even if their constitutions explicitly ban such funding.

Becket, a nonprofit that advocates for religious freedoms and represents the churches, said the same principle should apply to federal FEMA relief for Harvey victims.

“States and the federal government are different, but the First Amendment applies the same to both,” Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for Becket, said in a phone interview. “The principle is that governments can’t discriminate on the basis of religious status, and that is unapologetically what FEMA is doing here.”

The three churches, he added, “need emergency repair, now.”

A FEMA spokeswoman said in an email it would be inappropriate to discuss pending litigation.

The Texas churches that sued are the Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, which lost its roof and steeple and suffered other structural damage, and the Harvest Family Church in Cypress and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, which were flooded.

“This may be the first case this court will hear regarding Hurricane Harvey disaster relief, but it is surely not the last,” the complaint said.

The case is Harvest Family Church et al v Federal Emergency Management Agency et al, U.S, District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 17-02662.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Nigeria church shooting kills 11

Nigeria church shooting kills 11

ABUJA (Reuters) – Gunmen killed 11 people and wounded 18 others in a church in southeastern Nigeria on Sunday in an attack arising from a feud between members of the local community, officials said.

However, police believe that a man the gunmen were hunting for was not present in the church and so escaped the attack.

The attackers struck the church in Ozubulu early in the morning, said Garba Umar, head of police in Anambra state.

They were believed to have been trying to kill a local man, who was not identified by the authorities.

“The gunmen came thinking that their target was in the church but incidentally he was not,” Umar said, adding that the violence may be linked to drug-trafficking.

No arrests have been made, he said.

Nigeria’s southeast is predominantly Christian and the attack is a rare act of violence at a church.

Anambra State Governor Willie Obiano said the attack stemmed from a feud between members of the local community who were living outside Nigeria.

“We are not going to relent until we bring those that perpetrated this heinous crime to book,” he said.

Nigeria is wracked by insecurity, with Islamist insurgency Boko Haram having killed more than 20,000 people since 2009, sparking one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

Ethnically-charged violence is common throughout the central states and militancy is a constant threat in the oil-rich southeast.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Adrian Croft)

Egypt’s Coptic Christians to halt activities after security threat, sources say

Egyptian priests react during the funeral of victims of the Palm Sunday bombings, at St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Monastery "Deir Mar Mina" in Alexandria, Egypt April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians have been told by church leaders to cancel all events and activities outside churches in July because of a security threat, church and security sources said on Thursday.

The warning followed an attack in May by Islamic State on Copts traveling to a monastery in central Egypt that killed 29 people. A month earlier, 44 people were killed in bomb attacks at a cathedral and another church on Palm Sunday.

Sources said the warning was given to individual church leaders by a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Pope. Copts on trips or youth camps had been told to cut short their activities and return home early.

The Egyptian Catholic church said it got the same instructions. The church “complied with the interior minister’s decision to cancel church trips and camps until further notice,” Father Rafik Greish, a spokesman for the Coptic Catholic Church, told Reuters late on Thursday.

A Coptic church official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, told Reuters that his church received “oral instructions this week, nothing written, to prevent panic,” he said.

The source said the church was provided with more security forces to secure the gates of the church this week.

Egypt faces an Islamist insurgency led by the Islamic State group in the Sinai Peninsula, where hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed since 2013.

At least 23 soldiers were killed last week when suicide car bombs tore through two military checkpoints in the region in an attack claimed by Islamic State. It was one of the bloodiest assaults on security forces in years.

But Islamic State has also intensified attacks in the mainland in recent months, often targeting Coptic Christians. About 100 Copts have been killed since December.

(Reporting by Malak Ghobrial; additional reporting by Mahmoud Morad, Amina Ismail and Ahmed MOhamed Hassan; writing by Patrick Markey, editing by Larry King)

Christians caught up in Philippines’ urban battle with Islamists

A view of a fire caused by continued fighting between the government soldiers and the Maute group, in Marawi City in southern Philippines May 28, 2017.

By Tom Allard

ILIGAN CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Bishop Edwin Dela Pena was sipping coffee after dinner in a southern Philippines coastal town last Tuesday when he received a phone call: it was from one of his diocese priests, who sounded panicky and distressed.

Father Teresito “Chito” Sugarno, the vicar general of Marawi City, had been taken hostage by Islamist militants along with about a dozen of his parishioners.

“He was only given a few lines to deliver, and it was simply echoing the demands of the kidnappers – for the troops to withdraw,” said Dela Pena. If the demand was not met, he was told, “something bad would happen”.

There has been no further word from the group of Christians since they were caught up in a ferocious battle that has raged between Islamist insurgents and Philippines soldiers in Marawi for the past week.

As many as 180,000 people, about 90 percent of the population, have fled the usually bustling lakeside town nestled in lush tropical hills that, almost overnight last week, became a theater of urban warfare.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across Mindanao – the country’s southernmost island and an area the size of South Korea – as troops outside Marawi closed in on  Isnilon Hapilon, who was proclaimed “emir” of Southeast Asia last year after he pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Mindanao has long been a hotbed of local insurgencies and separatist movements: but now, Islamist fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries have converged in Mindanao, stoking fears that it could become a regional stronghold of Islamic State.

More than 90 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people are Christian, but here Muslims are in the majority. In 1980 Marawi proclaimed itself an “Islamic City” and it is the only city in the country with that designation.

For the small Christian community of Marawi, however, life in the city had until recently been peaceful and prosperous.

“We don’t consider ourselves Muslims or Christians, we are just friends,” said Dela Pena, who has lived for 17 years in Marawi but was out of town when the violence broke out.

That peace was shattered some months ago, he said, after the army bombed an encampment of Islamist groups some 50 km (30 miles) away.

“They said they pulverized the whole camp, but these people simply transferred their base of operation from the jungle to the urban center, to the city, Marawi,” he told Reuters in an interview from Iligan City, 37 km (23 miles) from Marawi.

“They came in trickles, a few people at a time. They have relatives there. They lived, they recruited,” he said, adding that authorities appear to have missed the looming threat.

Members of Philippine Marines walk next to an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) as they advance their position in Marawi City, Philippines May 28

Members of Philippine Marines walk next to an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) as they advance their position in Marawi City, Philippines May 28, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

CATHEDRAL ATTACKED AND TORCHED

Chaos was unleashed upon Marawi when troops searching for Hapilon were ambushed by heavily armed militants.

More than 200 local and foreign fighters from the Maute group and others allied to Islamic State fanned out across the city, seizing the main hospital and prison before attacking the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora.

Inside, nearby residents told Dela Pena, Father Teresito and a group of worshippers were decorating the church for a holy day to celebrate the life of Mary, a sacred figure in both Christianity and Islam.

Dela Pena said they ran to the nearby bishop’s house, hoping they would be safe there, but the militants burst in after them. That evening, after bundling their captives into vehicles, they torched the church, according to the residents.

Photos showing the priest, a young man and a woman slumped against a wall have circulated on the internet. Dela Pena believes they are being used as human shields by the militants.

“I cannot imagine. I have no words to describe it,” he said.

Still, he remains hopeful that the city can unite again. The vast majority of Marawi’s citizens, whatever their faith, are appalled by the violence and disruption, he said.

“I think we can begin something more effective in terms of working together, in terms of dialogue, in terms of peaceful coexistence,” he said. “After all, we have shared the same predicament.”

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema in MANILA; Editing by John Chalmers and Lincoln Feast)