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Pentagon: Air Force Failed To Prevent Sutherland Springs Shooter From Buying Guns

Crosses memorialize victims of the Sutherland Springs church shooting in November 2017.
David Martin Davies
Texas Public Radio
Crosses memorialize victims of the Sutherland Springs church shooting in November 2017.

A new investigation found that the Air Force repeatedly failed to report information that might have prevented an ex-airman who killed 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs from purchasing a gun.

Devin Kelley was able to purchase a firearm from a federally-licensed firearms dealer even though he had a disqualifying conviction while in the Air Force.

The report, released Thursday by the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, said the Air Force had four chances to turn Kelley’s fingerprints into the FBI and two opportunities to submit his final disposition report, as required by law.The reporting lapses began in 2011, when the Air Force began investigating Kelley for domestic violence, to 2012, when he was convicted by general court-martial.

MORE Full investigation into the Air Force’s failure to submit Kelley background to FBI

The investigation calls into question Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents and the training of security forces airmen.

Adam Skaggs, the lead counsel with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the report reveals systemic problems within the DOD.

“What this report gives us is a much more nuanced, more detailed picture of exactly where and how the breakdown in the legal process occurred,” he said. “The other takeaway is that these breakdowns occurred again and again in the case of this shooter.”

Skaggs added that DOD’s criminal history reporting problems continue today. Basing his numbers on ongoing litigation, Skaggs estimates that about 15,000 former service members who are federally prohibited from buying weapons have not been reported into the FBI’s background check system.

“One would hope that the Sutherland Springs shooting was the only evidence that was needed to prompt the military to, once and for all, solve this problem,” he said. “But unfortunately, at this point, it looks like they still have not gotten all of those records into the system.”

Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general performing the duties of the inspector general, issued the following statement regarding the Kelley investigation:

"The DoD OIG has performed multiple reviews into this important issue, and has repeatedly found deficiencies in the Military Services’ submission of required fingerprints and other criminal history information to the FBI. In addition to this report of investigation, we are conducting a follow-up evaluation to more broadly assess the policies, practices, and procedures regarding whether and how appropriate information is submitted by the DoD law enforcement agencies for entry into FBI databases. It is critical that the DoD fully implement our recommendations to correct past deficiencies and prevent future lapses in reporting."

The DOD’s Office of Inspector General made eight recommendations to the Air Force related to  recruiting background checks, security forces file retention, training program revisions, and performance reviews for personnel that were involved in the reporting lapses.

It made one recommendation to the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness related to legislation governing military protection orders.

Carson Frame can be reached atcarson@tpr.orgor on Twitter@carson_frame


Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Carson graduated from the University of Southern Florida in 2011 with a B.A. in English and International Studies, and earned a Master's degree in Journalism from New York University in 2017. Prior to coming to San Antonio, she worked as a reporter for the WMNF 88.5 FM Evening News in 2008. Since then, she's written for Ms. Magazine, Chronogram, Souciant, and Bedford+Bowery, among others. Carson has also done audio work for the podcasts Death, Sex & Money (WNYC) and Memory Motel (Listening Booth Media).