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Air Force blunder allowed Texas shooter to buy guns despite criminal past

Mark Ralston, AFP | People pray at a row of crosses placed for the victims of Sunday's mass shooting that in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 6, 2017.
3 min

The U.S. Air Force said on Monday it failed to provide information as required about a Texas shooter's criminal history to a U.S. law enforcement database - something that should have blocked any legal access to firearms in the United States.


Former airman Devin Kelley, who killed 26 people and wounded 20 others when he opened fire in the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was convicted five years ago by a general court-martial on two charges of domestic assault against his wife and stepson.

The Air Force said that information was not entered, however, into the National Criminal Information Center database, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation oversees and uses to run the required background check requests from gun dealers before a sale.

It is illegal under federal law to sell or give a gun to someone who been convicted of a crime involving domestic violence against a spouse or child.

"The Air Force has launched a review of how the service handled the criminal records of former Airman Devin P. Kelley following his 2012 domestic violence conviction," said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.

It released Kelley's general court-martial order, saying that Kelley struck the child "on the head and body with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm" on or about June 16, 2011, as well as striking the child on other instances between April and June.

Despite his conviction, which resulted in his "bad conduct" discharge from the military, Kelley was able to twice buys guns at the Academy Sports + Outdoors chain's San Antonio outlet since last year, the store said in a statement.

Both times, his names was run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which relies on the FBI's crime database, and came back with no red flags, the store said, citing "information we received from law enforcement."

'Needs to be fixed'

Gun experts said Kelley had exposed a previously unnoticed weak link in the background check system.

"We need to fix what is apparently a really serious loophole," Robyn Thomas, the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a telephone interview. "I think what’s happened here is the military's manner of applying the law hasn't really been properly correlated to the civilian approach and that is something that needs to be fixed."

Experts noted that the U.S. military routinely reported so-called dishonorable discharges from the military, which also disqualify a person from buying guns, to the background check database.

"We have not seen a problem from the Department of Defense in the past. We know that the reporting of dishonorable discharges to the system is apparently quite robust,” said Jonas Oransky, deputy legal director at the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

It was possible the department had failed to report other kinds of required information to the database, he said.

"They should have reported that into the system and that record should have been sitting there when he tried to buy a gun in Texas," Oransky said in a phone interview.

The Pentagon also said it requested that its inspector general, its independent watchdog, review policies and procedures "to ensure records from other cases across (Department of Defense) have been reported correctly."


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