FORT HOUSTON, TEXAS —
It was a cold, gray and windy evening Wednesday near Sutherland Springs, Texas, where Vice President Mike Pence paid tribute to the victims, survivors and their families of this week’s church massacre.
“The cherished names of the fallen will live in the hearts ... of every American forever,” Pence said at a special prayer service that drew about 3,000 people to the football field of Floresville High School.
He stepped onto the field after an emotional, tear-filled meeting in the school library with about 80 of the victims’ relatives. He was joined by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and their wives.
They made their way around the room to each family member — their short conversations ending with a hug and assurances that the country is thinking about them.
Sessions described the scene at the church as “stunning” and “horrible.”
Pence also met with first responders, police and a Sutherland Springs resident who confronted the gunman, forcing him to flee and perhaps saving more lives.
Before going to Sutherland Springs, Pence comforted 10 of the critically wounded survivors being treated at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Disgraced former U.S. Air Force airman Devin Kelley, who had a history of mental illness and a criminal conviction for domestic abuse, shot to death 26 worshippers at the First Baptist Church Sunday. He shot himself in the head after a chase by the neighbor and police.
The killings have again raised questions about the need for stricter gun laws in a state with a large gun-owning population.
President Donald Trump said Tuesday that stricter laws would not have stopped the gunman, and possibly would have kept the church neighbor from confronting the shooter.
During a stop in South Korea, Trump said if there were increased vetting of gun buyers in the United States “you might not have had that very brave person who happened to have a gun or a rifle in his truck go out and shoot him, and hit him, and neutralize him.”
Asked if he was considering any new gun control policies in the aftermath of the second major mass killing in the U.S. in five weeks, Trump said, “I mean, you look at the city with the strongest gun laws in our nation, is Chicago, and Chicago is a disaster. It’s a total disaster.”
Air Force investigates
The U.S. Air Force is investigating why Kelley’s 2012 domestic violence conviction was not properly entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s database as required by federal law and the Pentagon.
Authorities say that measure should have stopped him from legally buying the rifle he used in the massacre.
Kelley had previously been court-martialed for beating his wife and stepson, convicted, sentenced to 12 months in prison, discharged from the military for bad conduct, and handed a reduction in rank.
Police report that in 2012 Kelley escaped from a psychiatric hospital in New Mexico, where he was confined after making threats against commanders and sneaking guns onto an Air Force base. Police later picked him up in neighboring Texas.
WATCH: FBI's Combs: Encryption Is Blocking Access to Killer's Cellphone
Christopher Combs, the FBI agent leading the probe into the mass shooting, said the killer’s cellphone has been sent to an FBI laboratory for examination, but that so far, because of encryption, investigators have been unable to crack it open to determine whether he had made contact with anyone else about the shooting or left any trail of information that he was about to launch the attack.
Investigators explained why they believe a domestic dispute may have been behind the killings. The gunman had sent “threatening texts” to his mother-in-law before the shooting, investigators said, but she was not at Sunday’s service.
“This was not racially motivated ... wasn’t over religious beliefs. There was a domestic situation going on within the family and in-laws,” said Freeman Martin, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman.