Vice President Mike Pence, visiting the Texas church where a gunman killed 26 worshippers, said Wednesday that “bureaucratic failures” contributed to the tragedy by allowing the murderer to purchase a weapon illegally.
Mr. Pence said gunman Devin Patrick Kelley committed a crime simply by buying the semi-automatic rifle that he used in the slayings Sunday at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs. Kelley’s discharge from the Air Force on a domestic-violence court-martial was not reported to a federal database that should have prevented him from purchasing any firearms.
“He lied on his application,” Mr. Pence said of the shooter. “He had a history of mental illness, and there were bureaucratic failures. We will find out why this information was not properly reported in 2012, and we are working with leaders in Congress to ensure this never happens again.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, is working on legislation that would encourage federal agencies — including military services — to put all convictions in the system. Mr. Pence said the Air Force will deliver the results of its internal investigation quickly.
The victims ranged from toddlers to grandparents. Police have not determined a motive but said Kelley, who had a history of mental illness and violence, had sent angry texts before the shooting to his mother-in-law, who is a member of the congregation.
The vice president and second lady Karen Pence received a briefing from law enforcement officials with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and others outside the church under dreary skies. They also met with survivors and family members, and with Johnnie Langendorff, who chased down the gunman with another man, Stephen Willeford, after Mr. Willeford shot him.
Mr. Pence called the house of worship “a very special church.”
“Karen and I come to this place with a heavy heart,” the vice president said. “Faith is stronger than evil. We are deeply moved by their faith and resilience.”
He said he wanted the community to know in “this hour of trial for the people of Sutherland Springs and the people of Texas … the American people are with you. We will never leave your side.”
Later, at a nearby high school, the vice president, Mr. Sessions and others met with more than 70 family members of the victims in a hushed atmosphere.
“You’re in our prayers,” Mr. Pence told one group of relatives after a few embraces. “It’s a very special church.”
He told a man who lost his sister-in-law, “The whole country’s praying over you. This church family is touching the whole country.”
One man asked Mr. Pence to “please tell the president we thank him.”
Mr. Pence noted that President Trump is traveling in China. “He wanted us to be here. He’s in Beijing but I guarantee you his heart’s here,” he said.
Mr. Sessions’ wife, Mary, dabbed her nose with a handkerchief several times as they met with grieving relatives. The attorney general called the church shooting a “horrible thing.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar, Texas Democrat whose district includes Sutherland Springs, said he met with Air Force officials Tuesday and was dismayed to learn that the military failed repeatedly to report Kelly to the federal database of criminals.
“There were three different opportunities when they should have sent that information,” Mr. Cuellar said.
The lawmaker called Mr. Pence “very compassionate.”
“This is a time when the people need the hugs and the kind words, because right now there’s a lot of tears falling on the streets of Sutherland Springs, and it means a lot for him to be there,” he told reporters.
Mr. Cuellar, who has represented Wilson County for 13 years, also said he sees no change in opinion about gun rights locally after the tragedy.
“The Second Amendment is very strong and will remain strong there,” he said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Cuellar said the town is devastated.
“It’s hard,” he said. “This is a community that has never seen anything like this before, of course. A lot of communities haven’t seen anything like this before. Everybody knows everybody that got killed. Everybody knows everybody that got hurt. It’s very emotional.”