US President Donald Trump on Monday called the mass shooting in Texas church that left at least 26 people dead a “mental health problem,” not “a gun situation”.
Asked what policies he might support in response to Sunday’s Sutherland Springs shooting at a press conference in Tokyo, Trump said that based on preliminary reports, the gunman was “a very deranged individual, a lot of problems”.
He said Sunday’s attack, which left a further 20 people injured, “isn’t a guns situation” and said it was a “little bit soon” to get into a discussion about gun reform.
He further noted that a person in the crowd with a gun shot at the attacker and caused him to flee: “Otherwise it would have been - as bad as it was – it would have been much worse.”
“This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event,” Trump said, having earlier asked: “Who would ever think a thing like this could happen?”.
In 2015, just a day after Trump launched his White House bid, nine people were killed in an attack on a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Trump’s attempts to distance the shooting from gun reform calls that have continued since the worst mass shooting in US history, in Las Vegas on October 1, are in stark contrast to the sentiment expressed by his predecessor.
Writing on Twitter, Barack Obama said he grieved with the families “harmed by this act of hatred,” and said he would “stand with the survivors as they recover”.
In a subsequent message the former president urged those in power to take action to combat violence and reduce the prevalence of guns.
“May God also grant all of us the wisdom to ask what concrete steps we can take to reduce the violence and weaponry in our midst,” he wrote.
Trump’s statement on the shooting has not gone down well with commentators online who compared his response to his remarks made in the aftermath of last week’s terror attack in Manhattan that claimed eight lives.
Speaker Paul Ryan again called for “prayers” in the wake of the shooting and was mocked for it.
He did the same thing in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre in February 2016 that resulted in 14 deaths, prompting the New York Daily News to produce a much lauded front page story headlined ‘God Isn’t Fixing This’.
Speaking on Good Morning Britain, Trump former spokesman Sean Spicer, backed the president saying that it was too soon to link the shooting to gun laws.
“I agree with the president that this is not a guns issue – from what we learn, and it’s still early in this investigation, this individual had some problems and instead of addressing it in that way, I think that we can look and say how many more laws would an individual have broken, because that’s the facts,” he said.
“When you look at a circumstance like this, there were countless laws broken on the way to this tragedy but we could have stopped at it with the appropriate mental health screening and care that could have been given to this individual.”
Spicer told the programme that American needed to “look at what’s causing these people to do this, what are we doing to prevent this from the beginning, because whether they can fire off twenty rounds or thirty rounds or ten rounds it’s still an issue of mental health first and foremost”.
He added: “These are sick, deranged individuals committing these acts and that’s what we need to focus our time on. So it’s not a question of whether we should do anything or nothing it’s a question of should we do something that prevents it from the beginning or not. I think just passing feel good legislation to make everybody feel better, but it doesn’t actually have an impact on the solution, it’ll make you feel better but it won’t save a life.”
The gunman believed to be responsible for the First Baptist Church massacre has been identified in multiple reports as Devin Patrick Kelley, a 26-year-old former member of the US Air Force.
Kelley is a white male from outside of San Antonio, ABC News reported, and according to USAF spokeswoman Ann Stefanek, he served at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge in 2014.
The Air Force said late Sunday that Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 for assault on his spouse and their child. He received a bad conduct discharge, a 12-month sentence in a military prison and a reduction in rank for the offense.
After fleeing the shooting scene - about 65 km (40 miles) east of San Antonio - the suspect was found dead by a gunshot wound in his vehicle in neighboring Guadalupe County, Wilson County authorities said.
“The exact circumstances of the gunman’s death are still under investigation,” a statement from the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety said.
Prior to the shooting, the suspect was seen at a gas station dressed in all black before crossing the street to the church and opening fire on the congregation with a “Ruger AR assault-type rifle,” Texas Department of Public Safety regional director Freeman Martin said at a subsequent press conference on Sunday.
“This investigation is ongoing and information surrounding this tragedy is still being gathered and confirmed by law enforcement officials,” the sheriff’s office and Texas DPS said.
The deceased are aged between 5 and 72 years old.