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In Recovering Sutherland Springs, Cornyn Touts Gun Background Check Bill

Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune
Pastor and shooting survivor Frank Pomeroy (left) listens with Sutherland Springs survivors as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn speaks, on March 30, 2018.

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS — The flag they raised over the church Friday morning came from Washington, D.C., as did the law they were there to celebrate.

Five months after a gunman killed 26 in this town of about 650, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn returned to it Friday morning to meet with survivors and tout the measure he said might have averted the tragedy.

Neighbors, in Lone Star earrings and military veteran hats, joined a gaggle of reporters outside the First Baptist Church to hear from the Texas Republican, whose background check bill made it into law this month after months of delay. That bill — called “Fix NICS” after the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — targets problems with the federal database that’s supposed to disqualify individuals with certain criminal backgrounds from purchasing firearms.

But an Air Force reporting failure in that “broken system” meant it didn’t catch Devin Kelley, the gunman who killed 26 people at this church in November, Cornyn said. He filed the bill to close those loopholes.

“This law…I believe will save lives,” Cornyn said, standing in the sunlight in front of that church. “It’s not just mere symbolism.”

Both guns and God are part of healing in this community, where yards are packed with pick-ups and crosses and there seems to be a memorial staked up among the wildflowers in every grassy stretch. Pastor Frank Pomeroy, who lost his daughter Annabelle in last fall’s attack, thanked Cornyn for a law he said will “make us all feel a little safer.” He added that self-protection is part of American culture.

“I’ve always been a proponent of carrying,” said the pastor, who carried a handgun in a brown leather holster on his hip. "God's called some of us to run toward the fight, not away from it."

Cornyn called Fix NICS “a solution” but “not a complete solution” to the problem of gun violence. He proposed penalizing would-be gun owners who lie about their backgrounds to purchase firearms, and praised President Donald Trump’s recent efforts to regulate bump stocks, a rifle accessory blamed for amplifying the death count in an October mass shooting in Las Vegas. Cornyn’s office hasn’t yet drafted any new legislation, according to an aide.

Asked about further gun control measures, including the ban on assault rifles many on the left have called for, Cornyn gestured behind him to a man in a black cowboy hat.

Stephen Willeford, a fourth-generation resident of Sutherland Springs, shot back at Kelley on that Sunday in November, matching him assault rifle for assault rifle.

“He stopped the shooter from killing more people,” Cornyn said over the rumble of nearby Highway 87. “It’s not the gun itself, it’s the person who’s using it.

Willeford stepped up beside Cornyn, praising the lawmaker as “a tireless protector of our Second Amendment rights.”

“I met him with the very same gun that he had,” Willeford said. “There’s only one thing that stops a bad guy. That’s a good guy.” 

In the months since November’s shooting, the church that was the backdrop on Friday has become an ode to its angels: red or pink roses on white chairs, one for each victim; painted crosses and stars with messages of hope strung up on the garden fence; plaques in the ground with the names of those who died. 

This week, the town unveiled plans for a new church, which will sit beside the memorial. It will include a prayer center and a memorial tower. Its groundbreaking is set for May 5, exactly six months after the shooting.  

“The only thing that stops evil is God,” Willeford said. “When I engaged him, I knew God was covering me.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

Emma Platoff is a breaking news reporter at The Texas Tribune. She previously worked at the Tribune as a reporting fellow and is a recent graduate of Yale University, where she studied English literature and nonfiction writing. She has also worked as the managing editor of the Yale Daily News and as an intern at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Hartford Courant.