It’s been nearly a year since a gunman opened fire inside a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 worshipers.
The tragedy sparked controversy over how the gunman was able to purchase a firearm, even after he was discharged from the military for domestic abuse.
Soon domestic abuse will become a crime under military law, which lawmakers are hopeful will prevent more tragedies like Sutherland Springs from happening.
Leo Shane, deputy editor of Military Times, explains that the change won’t alter how domestic violence is currently prosecuted under military law.
“This has been a crime. Folks can be jailed, folks can be kicked out of the military for domestic violence,” Shane says. “But the big difference is going to be that the military’s going to start calling it domestic violence. In the past they’ve just called it assault or bad behavior. You know, that hasn’t been a specific category of crime that is domestic violence.”
Instead, the changes will affect how law enforcement are able to do their job outside of the military context.
“So when we get into issues of things specifically like firearm sales,” Shane says, “or whether or not somebody can buy a weapon, you know, they won’t have a domestic violence conviction on their record because it just goes down as a general assault or a bad behavior of some sort. So that becomes a record-keeping issue that’s a problem. Outside agencies won’t be able to look at military records and say, oh this person was convicted of a domestic violence crime, they can’t do this now, we’ve got to treat this differently.”
The law varies from state to state, but in Texas, those convicted of domestic violence are prohibited from possessing firearms.
“The shooting that happened last year in Sutherland Springs, where 26 people were killed in a church, you know that happened. The perpetrator there was a former airman who had been convicted of domestic violence issues in the military, but local law enforcement didn’t know that. They knew that he had been booted out of the military but didn’t have information that would have disqualified him from buying weapons. So this really came as a result of trying to fix that and looking at that problem. How does the military better make sure that what’s in their justice system translates to the general justice system?”
Gun rights advocates often argue that preventing violence is simply a matter of enforcing current laws, but that wasn’t the case with this incident. Instead, Shane says, “This was a case of the outside law enforcement not knowing that there was a domestic violence conviction against him and that he should have been disqualified from buying the guns.”
In the aftermath of the Sutherland Spring shooting, he says, the military did an internal review “that turned up about 4,000 cases that probably would have disqualified folks for things like firearms purchases that were never properly reported to federal or state authorities…This was the big shocker for a lot of lawmakers.”
Lawmakers realized, for the first time, that this wasn’t a case “where one person falls through the cracks.” Instead, Shane says, “this seemed to be a systemic problem where you’ve got an entire category of crimes, not just domestic violence but some other ways that outside law enforcement just doesn’t understand or can’t get knowledge of. So if they can’t get that information they can’t properly do their jobs and nobody’s safer.
“It’s a national safety issue,” he says.
The changes will go into effect on Monday, when President Donald Trump signs them into law at a ceremony at Fort Drum as part of a larger defense package.
Written by Rachel Taube.