Texas church shooting: How Trump's reaction to mass attacks differs for US-born suspects like Devin Kelley

November 07, 2017 - 1:14 pm

(WASHINGTON) -- The mass shooting at a rural Texas church Sunday is the latest instance where President Donald Trump did not call for immediate policy changes when the suspect in a large-scale attack has no apparent ties to other countries or foreign terror groups.

Trump has condemned the American-born Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting suspect, but blamed a “mental health problem at the highest level," without demanding government action.

That contrasts to his response to mass attacks like the deadly truck-ramming attack in New York City, just five days before the Texas shooting. After the truck attack on a bike trail, he almost immediately reiterated his frequent demands for an overhaul of the immigration system, but also called for the end of a specific visa lottery program.

It fits a pattern, according to one expert.

"The policies of this administration focus much more attention on mass casualty attacks in which the perpetrator can be connected in some way to a foreign terrorist organization and therefore validate the administration's rhetoric on the need for a travel ban and stronger immigration enforcement," said John Cohen, an ABC News consultant and former counterterrorism coordinator for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Such a focus is "ironic" because "many more casualties caused over the last several years in particular were through attacks by individuals who were born and raised in this country," Cohen added.

The statistics bear that out: Four of the five deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history involved American-born perpetrators, though one was the son of an Afghanistan immigrant. Seven of the 10 deadliest mass shootings were committed by white Americans in particular.

But White House press secretary Sarah Sanders denied a day after the Manhattan truck attack that Trump was trying to make political hay out of the event. “The president has been talking about extreme vetting {of some immigrants] and the need for that for the purpose of protecting the citizens of this country since he was a candidate,” she said at a press briefing.

Sanders added, "This isn't a new argument. This isn't a new position."

’Deranged’ people

Trump has used a number of adjectives to describe different kinds of assailants.

In his Oct. 2 comments after the Las Vegas concert shooting, Trump simply referred to U.S.-born shooter Stephen Paddock as "a gunman," but in a tweet two days later, he called him "the demented shooter."

After the Oct. 31 truck ramming attack in New York City, Trump tweeted that the driver, Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov, was “a very sick and deranged person.” In another tweet, Trump wrote that “ISIS just claimed the Degenerate Animal who killed, and so badly wounded, the wonderful people on the West Side.”

Trump was in Japan Sunday when news of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs broke, and his first public reaction came in the form of remarks that suspect Devin Kelley “a very deranged individual.”

Some of his most harsh comments were reserved for Omar Mateen, the shooter at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016. Then-candidate Trump said the shooter, the U.S.-born son of an Afghanistan immigrant, “slaughtered clubgoers” and, in another tweet, shared a link to a story connecting “this savage from Orlando” to Trump’s discredited claims that people were cheering after the 9/11 attacks.

Pointing to policy, but only in some cases

In cases that involve perpetrators with foreign ties, which in the past years have included the 2015 San Bernardino, California, shooting, the Pulse nightclub shooting and the Halloween truck attack in New York City, Trump has pivoted toward policy change suggestions within days, or sometimes hours, of the incident.

Trump made the connection between certain shootings and his administration’s then-planned policies clear in one of his responses immediately after the Pulse nightclub shooting, in which Mateen killed 49 people.

“What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban. Must be tough,” Trump wrote in a tweet less than 14 hours after the first shots were fired.

During his speech to the National Rifle Association in April 2017, when he became the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to speak to the lobbying group, Trump singled out three mass casualty incidents that involved individuals he has referred to as radical Islamic terrorists.

"We’ve seen the attacks from 9/11 to Boston to San Bernardino. Hundreds of individuals from other countries have been charged with terrorism-related offenses in the United States," he said in the speech.

He did not mention any mass shootings that occurred on U.S. soil, many of which were committed by American-born perpetrators.

Demographic breakdown

Four of the five deadliest shootings in modern U.S. history were committed by men who were born in the United States: Stephen Paddock, who committed the Las Vegas shooting last month, Mateen, who was responsible for the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Adam Lanza, who opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, and now Devin Kelley in Texas.

The remaining individual -- Seung-hui Cho, who was responsible for the Virginia Tech shooting -- was born in South Korea but was a permanent U.S. resident at the time of the 2007 shooting.

When looking at the top 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history, the killers break down into seven white male shooters and three shootings that involved non-white perpetrators.

Cohen, who has spent three years studying mass casualty attacks in the United States and Europe at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said the research is “finding a lot of behavioral and psychological characteristics that are common across this group of people, whether they’re motivated by ideological objectives or something else.”

"There is no religious, ethnic, or socio-economic profile – even among those motivated by extremist ideologies such as those of terrorist groups like ISIS," Cohen said. "Regardless of ‘motive,’ many of these offenders present common behavioral, psychological, and life experience characteristics."

Cohen listed a number of such characteristics, including several that could apply to Kelley, such as a history of violent behavior and criminal activity or a series of work and other life failures. It’s unclear whether others – such as underlying mental health or behavioral health issues, or feelings of exclusion or the experience of perception of victimization -- might apply in the latest mass shooting.

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