The Texas Shooter Got a Gun Because America’s Background Check System is a Disaster


His domestic violence conviction, like many others, never made it into the database.

Sutherland Springs, Texas shooter Devin Kelley was legally prohibited from purchasing a gun, but the Air Force base at which he was stationed never entered his domestic abuse charge into the background check system — and he’s not alone. Many domestic abusers are likely able to purchase firearms because their convictions are never entered into the database.

In 2012, Kelley violently assaulted his wife and young stepson. According to a report Monday, he broke the infant’s skull during the assault.

“Kelley was convicted by a general court martial on two charges of domestic assault against his wife and step-son,” a release from Air Force Monday afternoon said. Kelley served 12 months in confinement following the conviction.

“Federal law prohibited him from buying or possessing firearms after this conviction,” according to the Air Force.

But, the release goes on, “Initial information indicates that Kelley’s domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Criminal Information Center database by the Hollman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigation.”

Screenshot of the press release via Alex Yablon

Since the shooting — which left 26 people dead and at least 20 others wounded, including more than 10 children — Kelley’s ability to purchase guns, given his history of domestic abuse and discharge from the Air Force, has been a key question.

People who are dishonorably discharged from the military are prohibited from purchasing firearms under federal law, and initial reports about Kelley indicated he had been dishonorably discharged from the Air Force. Kelley was actually released on a bad conduct discharge (BCD), and a BCD does not prohibit someone from purchasing a gun under federal law.

However, anyone who commits “a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” is prohibited from possessing or purchasing a firearm, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as is anyone convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” The provision does not except military or law enforcement.

Under this law, Kelley should not have been able to purchase the guns he did — four, one per year, from 2014 to 2017 — but his conviction was never entered into the background check system.

Kelley’s case isn’t a one-off. A 2014 paper from the Center for American Progressfound that domestic violence records reviewed for background checks in order to purchase a gun are often woefully incomplete. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress.)

The paper estimated that just three states — Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New Mexico — submit complete domestic violence records for background checks.

Additionally, a Thursday report from The Trace found that the military is reporting almost no domestic abusers to the database.

According to the report, the Department of Defense has just a single misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence on file, and the military has not submitted a single record for members subject to domestic violence restraining orders.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress