On Wednesday, Emmanuel Pop Ba’s family members gathered in South Austin, Texas, in front of a two-story home that, while attractive, wasn’t particularly distinct from the others on the street. It isn’t a cookie-cutter neighborhood, exactly, but it’s quiet, and the houses tend to have garages and driveways, large backyards, and front porches that aren’t quite big enough for a patio furniture set but are nonetheless pleasant, shady areas to wait for someone to answer a doorbell. What made that house different this week were the prayer candles and flowers sitting on the ground next to an unassuming brick mailbox — a makeshift memorial for Pop Ba, the 32-year-old handyman who had been helping out at the house, and Sabrina Rahman, the 24-year-old homeowner who had just moved in with her husband and baby.
Pop Ba and Rahman were two of the six people killed in what police say was a shooting spree that started in San Antonio late Monday night and stretched into Tuesday evening. The alleged gunman, who is in custody, is a former Army officer discharged for domestic violence with a history of assault and mental illness. It is not yet clear if he was barred from purchasing a gun — while police say they anticipate more charges, he does not, as of this writing, face counts for illegal possession — nor is it clear if he was ever hospitalized for a mental health episode. But that might not matter.
As The Trace’s Jennifer Mascia and Chip Brownlee reported this week, many people who go on to carry out a mass shooting retain their gun rights after interactions with the mental health system. Mascia and Brownlee found more than a dozen attacks over the past 20 years that fit this pattern, including the Buffalo, New York, supermarket shooting in 2022; the Umpqua Community College shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, in 2015; and the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.
To understand when a mental health hospitalization disqualifies someone from purchasing or owning guns, Mascia and Brownlee conducted a comprehensive analysis of gun laws in all 50 states. They found that only five — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, and Washington — impose some form of a gun ban after an emergency mental health hospitalization that’s not followed by a court-ordered commitment. The vast majority of states follow federal law, which dictates that only an involuntary, court-ordered commitment to a mental health facility triggers a gun ban.
Overall, the laws vary widely from state to state, including in places with more stringent limitations, and it’s difficult to assess whether they prevent shootings. There’s debate about the value of the policies, too: Emmy Betz, an emergency medicine professor who directs the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told Mascia and Brownlee that the laws may discourage people from seeking help. There’s also a moral question, Betz said: “How do we find that balance between individual rights and responsibilities and community safety?”
For Pop Ba’s family, the question of safety in America is broader. Pop Ba and his family immigrated from La Libertad, Guatemala, five years ago, the Austin American-Statesman reported. “We came here asking for refuge in this country,” Pop Ba’s sister-in-law, Filomena Caal Pop, told the Statesman. “But these times have changed so much. People have lost the humanity in their hearts.”
From Our Team
A roundup of stories from The Trace.
The Lewiston, Maine, shooting was one of more than a dozen high-profile attacks carried out by people who retained their gun rights after hospitalization during a mental health crisis.
Read more →
Armed hate crimes, down since the Trump years, have increased since the conflict erupted in October.
Read more →
Firearm suicide is among the leading causes of death for veterans. A new program aims to teach mental health practitioners how veterans think about their guns.
Read more →
What to Know This Week
A trove of records reveals that the children at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, were more prepared for last year’s mass shooting than many of the officers charged with stopping it. The contrast shows that, 20 years after Columbine, police are still not adequately trained to respond to a mass shooting, and nationwide policy gaps instead put the onus of preparedness on victims. [FRONTLINE/The Texas Tribune and ProPublica]
Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis has mostly made the news for leveling criminal charges against Donald Trump for trying to overturn the 2020 election. But Willis is also prosecuting two cases against members of federal law enforcement task forces who shot and killed someone while on duty. She has better odds of convicting the former president. [NBC]
U.S. Senators Angus King, an independent from Maine, and Democrat Martin Heinrich of New Mexico introduced legislation that would ban weapons with a magazine capacity exceeding 10 rounds and make conversion devices like bump stocks and auto sears illegal. In a statement, King tied the bill directly to the October attack in Lewiston. [News Center Maine/Associated Press]
A group of activist nuns are pursuing an unusual legal tactic to pressure Smith & Wesson to alter the way it markets its popular AR-15-style rifle. The nuns, who own a stake in the gunmaker, filed a lawsuit alleging that company leaders are putting shareholders at risk by exposing the company to liability. [The Wall Street Journal]
After a two-decade freeze on federal funding for gun violence research, Congress in 2019 allocated millions to the CDC to back studies examining firearm use and access. Now, House Republicans are proposing to zero out that funding — and their effort may be overlooked amid the drama of potential government shutdowns and defaults. [Wired]
The threat of armed insurrection is rising in the U.S., driven by the increasing presence of firearms in political spaces, according to researchers at the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. [Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health]
American-made guns are linked to violent crimes all over the world, and as federal regulation of small arms exports went from bad to worse in recent years, the problem has accelerated. Now, more than a dozen members of the U.S. House are backing legislation to change that. [Americas Regional Monitoring of Arms Sales Act]
This year set the record for the highest number of mass killings — defined in this context as four or more people shot and killed, excluding the shooter — of any year since at least 2006, with 38 by early December. The previous record, 36, was set last year. [The Washington Post]
Anti-government extremist Ammon Bundy, the leader of an armed militia group and scion of the country’s foremost far-right family, seemed poised for another confrontation with the law this past summer. Then he disappeared. [The Atlantic]
Ariel Calhoun, 18, was a go-getter. She got her first job, at a pizza shop, when she was 13; graduated from high school at age 16; and, after developing an interest in vehicle repair, held jobs at nearby car shops. Calhoun was killed last weekend near her home in Indianapolis, one of more than two dozen teenagers to die from a shooting in the city this year, according to the Indianapolis Star. She loved blues and jazz music, especially The O’Jays, The Whispers, and Anita Baker. Calhoun was an old soul, her mother said, and ambitious from the start. She was already planning her next move, a stint at a trade school to learn how to weld. Calhoun never hesitated to speak her mind, her mom said, but made sure to always frame her criticisms with kindness. “I called her my beautiful, biggest critic because that’s the way she was,” her mother told the Star. “I loved that about her.”
“The untold story of Mission Hill, the Stuart shooting, and the people who got caught up in it and never managed to get free.” [The Boston Globe]
“I just honestly thought that they were in the cafeteria because it seemed like all the lights were off and it seemed like it was really quiet. I didn’t hear any screaming, any yelling. I literally didn’t hear anything at all.”
— Uvalde Police Staff Sergeant Eduardo Canales, on responding to the 2022 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, to an investigator, in records obtained by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica