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White Settlement church shooter had long criminal history — so how did he get a gun?

Kaley Johnson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram on

Published in News & Features

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The man who shot and killed two people inside a White Settlement church on Dec. 29 had a history of erratic behavior.

Keith Kinnunen, who was from River Oaks, faced a felony charge of assault with a deadly weapon in Fort Worth in 2008.

In 2012, he was accused of using tampons and lamp oil to set a cotton field on fire in Oklahoma.

That same year, his ex-wife filed for a protective order against him, saying he was a "violent, paranoid person with a long line of assault and battery with and without firearms."

He was arrested in New Jersey in 2016 when authorities said they found him holding a shotgun and taking photos of an oil refinery.

And yet, he walked into West Freeway Church of Christ with a shotgun, prompting many to ask why he was able to have a firearm in the first place.

When asked if Kinnunen was able to purchase a gun in Texas, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it could not comment while the investigation was ongoing.

An Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms special agent said the organization traced the gun Kinnunen used in the church shooting, but could not provide further details until the investigation is complete.

Federal and state law prohibits certain people from buying guns, such as convicted felons.

Kinnunen does not have any felony convictions. While his assault and arson charges were originally felonies, both were prosecuted as misdemeanors.

However, it is not known if he was barred from having a firearm for other reasons.

For example, under federal law, people who are declared mentally defective or who have been committed to a mental institution cannot buy a weapon. People addicted to a controlled substance are legally not able to buy a gun, and some domestic assault misdemeanors also carry a penalty against buying firearms.

It has not been confirmed whether Kinnunen fit into any of those categories.

However, even if he did, the enforcement of those prohibitions can be inconsistent, said Eric Ruben, an assistant professor of law at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.

When someone becomes disqualified from buying a firearm, law enforcement agencies must report the person to a federal database that tracks people who are prohibited from buying firearms. But that does not always happen, Ruben said.

"It's not just whether or not there was a technical prohibition, but also whether or not it was reported in the database and whether there is an effort to enforce those prohibitions," Ruben said.

For example, if a domestic assault is classified under a different charge, such as ordinary assault, it may not be reported.

 

And as long as private gun sales are allowed in Texas, none of those prohibitions matters, Ruben said. In private sales, the seller is not required to run a background check on the buyer.

"So long as people can engage in private sales that don't call for background checks, that's a pretty big loophole," he said.

Ed Scruggs with Texas Gun Sense said it seems obvious that Kinnunen should not have been able to legally purchase a gun based on his past behavior and criminal record.

"If you want to talk about a person who shouldn't have had firearms, he fits the description," Scruggs said. "I cannot imagine any rational person or any responsible gun owners thinking he should have had a shotgun. I mean, it's ridiculous."

In her motion for a restraining order, Kinnunen's ex-wife described him as a "religious fanatic" who said he was "battling a demon."

Jack Wilson, the leader of the church's security team, ended the shooting in six seconds by fatally shooting Kinnunen. Many touted Wilson's actions as proof that guns in the right hands save lives.

"What happened didn't prevent the tragedy -- it limited the tragedy," Scruggs said. "Wouldn't it have been better if we could have prevented him from going into the church with a gun?"

In a statement, Democratic state Sen. Beverly Powell of Fort Worth also emphasized Kinnunen's troubling history.

"We must respect the Second Amendment while also working together to keep guns out of the hands of those who wish to do harm to Texans worshipping in a church, attending school or shopping for their children," she said.

But Scruggs argued the shooting was evidence that more restrictive gun laws, not less, are needed in Texas. He called Kinnunen "a walking advertisement for a red flag law" based on his history.

Red flag laws allow a judge to temporarily seize a person's weapons if they are considered an imminent threat. Texas has not adopted any such laws.

In 2018, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he opposed red flag laws.

"I have never supported these policies, nor has the majority of the Texas Senate," Patrick said in a recent news release.

(c)2020 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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