AFTER LAST year’s mass shooting at a rural Texas church, the Air Force acknowledged it had failed to alert the FBI to information that would have prevented the shooter, a disgraced airman, from legally purchasing weapons used in the attack. What was not known then was the extent of the failure — how the Air Force had multiple warnings and failed multiple times to live up to its obligation. A damning new report by the Defense Department inspector general reveals systemic issues that demand urgent attention.
The First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs was the site of the deadliest shooting in modern Texas history on Nov. 5, 2017. Devin Patrick Kelley, discharged from the Air Force for bad conduct, fatally shot 26 worshipers before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot. He had been the subject of two law enforcement investigations by Air Force authorities and was convicted in 2012 in a general court-martial of assaulting his wife and stepson. On at least four occasions, his fingerprints should have been submitted to the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division — but weren’t. On two other occasions, following final disposition of the case, the FBI should have been alerted — but wasn’t. As a result, Kelley’s criminal history was never recorded in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System used by licensed firearm dealers to determine whether someone is prohibited from buying a firearm. Federal law prohibits individuals convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms.
So he purchased six guns, including a Ruger AR-556 rifle he used in attacking churchgoers. The Pentagon report blamed inexperienced special agents, leadership gaps and other factors, and said the case was not isolated but part of a “systemic problem.” An audit of other cases showed similar failures to submit fingerprints for final disposition reports to the FBI.
It is to the credit of Defense Department officials that a thorough review of Kelley’s case was undertaken. More than 40 witnesses were interviewed, and Kelley’s criminal history and mental-health records were subpoenaed. The report was unsparing in finding “no valid reason” for the Air Force’s mistakes, which led to “drastic consequences.” It made a series of recommendations. There now must be vigorous follow-up, holding to account those who failed to do their jobs and fixing the systemic issues.
Some may argue that this disturbed young man could have found another way to get a gun even if the system had worked and he had been barred from purchasing one legally. That may or may not be true. If it is, it only argues for further strengthening the system of background checks and closing the loopholes available to those with evil intent.