Officials have kept videos from other mass shootings out of public view for years after the fact, including those that captured parts of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the attack at Fort Hood in 2009, and the deadly shooting at a constituent event in Tucson led by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011.
The Rev. Stephen Curry, who helped preside over the first vigil for the First Baptist Church victims on Sunday night, said people were just too devastated to support the release of the video. In time, he said, it could be made public and serve historical and educational purposes, as with Abraham Zapruder’s footage of the Kennedy assassination. It could “help us learn about how to protect each other, how to protect ourselves, how to protect the congregation,” he said.
But not now. “It’s too raw,” he said.
State and federal law enforcement officials have reviewed the Texas footage but have not said whether they intend to release it. The video was seized as part of an investigation that is likely to last for months as officials unravel the life and criminal past of the gunman, Devin P. Kelley, who officials say was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he carried out the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history.
“You have a dead suspect, so one of the arguments will be, ‘The suspect is dead, we’re not going to court, so why not release it now?’” said Tony Leal, a former chief of the Texas Rangers, the unit leading the investigation into the attack in Sutherland Springs. “And the answer to that question is: ‘Because the investigation continues.’”
Mr. Leal, who was in charge of the Rangers when 13 people were killed in a mass shooting at Fort Hood in 2009, said that the premature release of the video could taint, even inadvertently, the memories of witnesses. Other officials raised concerns that releasing such gruesome, inflammatory images could jeopardize the trial process and influence potential jurors in other cases.
Whether Texas officials release any video images may hinge on how they apply the state’s open records law. Although state law permits the release of crime scene imagery in some circumstances, law enforcement agencies are able to withhold information when it “deals with the detection, investigation or prosecution of crime” in a matter that did not lead to a conviction.
Lawyers who are involved in public records issues in Texas said that officials have often interpreted the exemption broadly and that it would probably give the authorities enough legal cover to keep the video private.
The video is not the only remnant of the shooting at issue: It is not even clear how long the church will stand in Sutherland Springs. In conversations this week with two leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the pastor here, Frank Pomeroy, whose daughter died in the attack, raised the possibility of demolishing the building and erecting a memorial in its place. A new worship center would be built nearby.
Although no decision has been made, Roger S. Oldham, a spokesman for the convention, said that Mr. Pomeroy had expressed concern that the heavily damaged building was “a place of really stark memories.”
Current and former law enforcement officials described shielding images from public view as an act of respect for the victims of shootings and their families. In Orlando, Fla., the police chief, John Mina, said that his officers do not include any graphic images when they make presentations to other police departments about how they handled the Pulse nightclub shooting.
“To me, any time those things are asked for or requested, it seems like it’s just curiosity,” Chief Mina said. “I don’t see a need to release that.”
The F.B.I. is in possession of a graphic surveillance video of the massacre at Pulse that depicts Omar Mateen, the gunman, entering the club and firing for more than five minutes. At least twice, he can been seen executing wounded patrons, some of whom were writhing on the dance floor.
The video also provides the clearest look at how the police initially responded to the attack. Yet, despite the public interest, it has never been released. F.B.I. officials say the video is part of an ongoing criminal case involving Mr. Mateen’s wife.
There is precedent of releasing some video associated with mass shootings. The F.B.I., for instance, released footage after the Navy Yard killings in Washington in 2013, but it did not show the gunman opening fire.
Even when images are released in response to public records requests, media ethics experts say that journalists must weigh whether publishing such invasive, traumatic images adds substantially to the public’s understanding of a shooting, such as contradicting an official explanation.
“This is the moment of death for 26 people,” said Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute. “How much of an invasion of privacy is it into that moment? And how do you balance that against the need to tell the story and show the story?”
Graphic videos and photos of black men killed by the police in places such as Ferguson, Mo., New York City and North Charleston, S.C., galvanized street demonstrations and calls for action by the Black Lives Matter movement and other activist groups.
Some gun control advocates say the videos should be required viewing for elected officials because they show a visceral toll of gun violence that body counts and pictures from funerals cannot convey.
A recent study in which people were shown videos of a mass execution by the Islamic State found that viewers were most affected by video clips that did not edit out the worst violence.
“People were angrier about it and more disgusted,” said Matthew Grizzard, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo, the study’s lead author. “If you don’t see it, it’s easier to ignore. Seeing consequences causes stronger emotions in us and makes us care more.”
After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore suggested that the nation’s gun control debate would end in an instant if the public saw the crime scene photos. His comments provoked a backlash among Connecticut lawmakers who moved quickly to withhold those images.
Andrea Brauer, former executive director of Texas Gun Sense, said that releasing the video from Sunday’s shooting as a deterrent to gun violence would be “very, very upsetting for the families” and that she would not make it public.
Nevertheless, she said, when she sees pictures of the 20 children killed in Newtown, “that’s reason enough for me to want to do something.”
“I’m so torn,” said Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was among 12 people killed inside an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July 2012. “This is the reality. But the other reality is, we don’t want to see that.”
She thought the images were important for investigators trying to piece together the crimes, and could also help other emergency management teams study where they and others had made mistakes, and how to improve their responses. But she said simply releasing graphic and disturbing videos served little purpose beyond offering fodder to conspiracy theorists who dismiss mass shootings as hoaxes or as staged “false flag” events.
“To know that it lives live on the internet, on YouTube and anybody can pull it up, that’s a horrible thing,” she said. “You don’t know when somebody’s going to find it and somebody’s going to send it to you in an email.”
Ms. Phillips, who with her husband founded an advocacy group for survivors and family members affected by gun violence, said she had grappled with whether to request her own daughter’s autopsy photographs, so she could show them to elected officials in meetings.
So far, she has not.
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