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How an Air Force blunder let the Texas church shooter buy a gun

Bureaucratic mistakes have consequences.

26 People Killed And 20 Injured After Mass Shooting At Texas Church
Twenty-six crosses stand in a field on the edge of town to honor the 26 victims killed at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on November 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The gunman who killed 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday may not have been able to purchase a gun in the first place if it weren’t for a bureaucratic blunder by the US Air Force.

The gunman, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, served in the Air Force but committed crimes while in uniform. He pleaded guilty to two counts of assault on his wife and child in 2012, even cracking his child’s skull. Kelley served 12 months in confinement and eventually left the service in May 2014 and with a bad conduct discharge and had his rank reduced to the lowest level in the Air Force.

The assault conviction should have barred Kelley from purchasing a gun. The problem is the Air Force didn’t pass on that information to law enforcement. Had the Air Force done so, authorities would have entered his conviction in a federal database that arms dealers must check when someone tries to purchase a gun. And had that information been in the database, Kelley might not have been able to acquire weapons.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would call for oversight hearings about how the Air Force might’ve made this mistake.

But the Air Force admitted the error on Monday in a statement. "Initial information indicates that Kelley's domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Criminal Information Center database by the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations," the statement reads. Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico is where Kelley served starting in 2010.

“Federal law prohibited him from buying or possessing firearms after this conviction,” Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokesperson, said in a statement. Texas also denied Kelley a gun owner’s permit.

It’s a startling admission from the Air Force, especially since the US military rarely admits it makes mistakes. But because of the interest in the mass shooting — one of the worst in US history — it was possible that the information would eventually come out.

Are there other cases like this?

In a separate statement Monday evening, Acting Deputy Director of Defense Press Operations Mark Wright said the Pentagon’s inspector general will “review relevant policies and procedures to ensure records from other cases across [the Department of Defense] have been reported correctly.”

It’s still unclear when the Pentagon will complete the review. But the possibility exists that federal authorities aren’t privy to all the criminal conduct of service members.

And if that’s the case, the chance that a future criminal like Kelley gets his hands on guns is more than zero.