Preventing Another Sutherland Springs

Published 7:00 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Sen. John Cornyn

San Antonio Express-News



Evil never triumphs.

Just ask Mark Collins, associate pastor of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.

The unthinkable tragedy shook his church when a deranged shooter opened fire during a Sunday service and killed 26 parishioners on Nov. 5, 2017. But the next Sunday — Collins was witness to something remarkable: One week after the shooting, the congregation overflowed and smashed its 100-year attendance record.

I joined that Sunday to lend a shoulder to the mourning and try to offer a little hope, but what happened was the reverse: They gave me more inspiration than I could ever have imagined. Pastor Frank Pomeroy, whose 14-year old daughter was killed, was already back doing the Lord’s work, consoling members of his congregation. Parishioners sang songs of hope. They showed strength and resilience. They didn’t let evil triumph, though it had certainly tried.

Twenty-six parishioners died in the attack — adults, teenagers, children, and an unborn child. Every single home in the town felt the impact of this violent attack on their community. In just a matter of minutes, 26 lives were taken and countless others forever changed.

Days later, we learned that there had been warning signs. The shooter had a history of violence. Red flags had been raised — school suspensions, comments about wanting to kill his superiors, animal abuse and violence toward those closest to him. He had choked his wife, fractured his stepson’s skull, even done time in a military prison.

The shooter should not have been able to purchase a weapon. His previous convictions legally disqualified him. But because the Air Force did not upload this information into the federal background check database, he was able to unlawfully bring home four firearms from the store one day.

Sadly, this tragedy is not an isolated incident. At that time, it was estimated that some 7 million criminal convictions, mental illness diagnoses, and records — including at least 25 percent of felony convictions and a large number of convictions for misdemeanor domestic violence — were absent from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. Something had to be done.

Eleven days after the shooting, I introduced the Fix NICS Act to reform the system and ensure that all federal departments and agencies upload these required conviction records. It also encourages, to the greatest extent possible under the Constitution, state and local governments to do the same.

It’s imperative that complete and accurate information is uploaded, that violent felons’ convictions are shared, and that those who legally are not entitled to possess a firearm do not gain access to one.

I spent months building support for the Fix NICS Act, and eventually, 77 Republican and Democrat senators co-sponsored the bill, and President Donald Trump signed it into law last March.

But our work isn’t done; I’ve been keeping in touch with officials at the Department of Justice to ensure the law is fully implemented — and fast.

No family should ever have to go through this tragedy — much less an entire town — when it could and should have been prevented by laws already on the books. By fixing and reinforcing those laws, I hope we’ve ensured that no family ever will.

This weekend, I’ll once again join the First Baptist congregation and the Sutherland Springs community to launch a new beginning. We’ll dedicate a brand new First Baptist sanctuary to fit 250 worshippers — five times as many as were in attendance on that November day.

Pastor Pomeroy of First Baptist Church has said, “Prior to the shootings, we were a small church with a big heart.” On Sunday, we’ll celebrate the resurrection of a big church — with an even bigger heart.


Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, is a member of the Senate Finance, Intelligence, and Judiciary Committees.