How Texas church shooter bought rifle despite mental illness and criminal history is under scrutiny


HOUSTON (AP) — The shooter who opened fire at a Houston megachurch before being gunned down by security officers used an AR-style rifle that police say she legally purchased despite a years-long criminal record, a history of mental illness and allegations she threatened to shoot her ex-husband.

Key questions remained Tuesday about Genesse Moreno’s motive in the shooting, and police have given no details about where and how she obtained the rifle in December. The shooting joins others in Texas and elsewhere that have involved shooters who legally obtained guns despite criminal history and mental health problems.

Authorities say Moreno, 36, entered celebrity pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church on Sunday with her 7-year-old son and began firing in a hallway, sending worshippers scrambling for safety. Moreno did not reach the main sanctuary and was killed after exchanging gunfire with two off-duty officers.

Moreno’s son was critically injured after being shot in the head and Houston police did not immediately have an update on his condition Tuesday.

Moreno used both male and female aliases, but investigators found through interviews and past police reports that Moreno identified as female, according to Houston Police Commander Chris Hassig.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner did not say whether the AR-15 was purchased retail, which would have required a background check if bought from a federally licensed firearms dealer, or a private sale, which would not. Texas requires no license to carry a rifle or handgun in public. Police added that Moreno also carried a .22 caliber rifle that she did not fire during the shooting.

“We’re not people standing up here against (Second Amendment) rights, but people who are suffering from mental illness, criminals … we’re looking at that,” Finner said.

Moreno’s rap sheet included charges for forging a $100 bill, a 2009 assault conviction for kicking a detention officer — which resulted in a 180-day county jail sentence — and a 2022 misdemeanor count for unlawfully carrying a weapon.

In a guilty plea to the 2022 misdemeanor count in nearby Fort Bend County, Moreno surrendered a pistol and a rifle that were found during a traffic stop. The weapons were destroyed as part of the plea agreement.

Wesley Wittig, a Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor, said Moreno’s mental health history did not come up in the case, but noted there isn’t a comprehensive mental health tracking system to flag such issues.

“Systems only document what’s already happened. While that could result in some prevention, the real issue is probably deeper than that because it’s people and just tracking stuff doesn’t fix people,” Wittig said. “Without having a serious sit down with all the potential issues and problems and paths forward, we’re probably not going to have a comprehensive answer any time soon.”

Walli Carranza, Moreno’s former mother-in-law, said in court filings that she long tried to alert authorities about the danger her ex-daughter-in-law posed but that authorities failed to take action.

In documents filed in connection with Moreno’s 2022 divorce, Carranza alleged Moreno had a history of threatening people with guns or being careless with how they were stored around her young son.

Carranza said that in January 2020 she saw an unlocked gun in her grandson’s diaper bag, and alleged Moreno pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot her ex-husband while their son slept in the back seat of their car.

Carranza said she alerted Child Protective Services in Texas, but was told that until Moreno shot someone or her grandson used the gun, there was nothing the agency could do.

Melissa Landford, spokesperson for the state Department of Family and Protective Services, said CPS was investigating the shooting alongside law enforcement and could not provide further information due to confidentiality reasons.

In a statement posted Monday on Facebook, Carranza blamed CPS for not taking any action, and the state for not having laws that would have prevented someone with a history of mental illness from having a gun.

“Let it be clear that the Second Amendment stops where the First Amendment right to life begins and it’s time to remove from the U.S. Constitution any protection for gun ownership,” Carranza wrote.

Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, which advocates for background checks and tougher gun restrictions, said state lawmakers for years have resisted passing so-called “red flag” laws. Those generally allow law enforcement or family members to ask a judge to order the seizure or surrender of guns from someone who is deemed dangerous, often because of mental health concerns or threats of violence.

Houston police said Monday that Moreno was put under emergency detention by officers in 2016, but did not elaborate. In Texas, an emergency detention is not an arrest, but allows an offer to detain a mentally ill person if they pose a “substantial risk of serious harm” to themselves or others.

“We should be protecting our communities from harm by those with documented dangerous history,” Golden said.

Texas has had other major shootings involving individuals who legally obtained guns despite documented criminal and mental health histories.

The gunman who killed 26 people and wounded 20 others in the 2017 shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs was able to legally purchase his firearm despite a previous military conviction of domestic violence assault.

In 2023, a man with a history of mental health problems and a prior arrest on charges of assaulting family members killed six people in a violent rampage spanning from San Antonio to Austin. He purchased his gun through a private sale that avoided a background check.


Vertuno reported from Austin, Texas.


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