As the horrific details of Devin Kelley’s record of domestic violence emerged, the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, spoke for all of us when he asked, incredulously: “By all of the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun, so how did this happen?”
That’s a question that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the Department of Justice, and other federal officials must answer. Kelley, who murdered at least 26 churchgoers on Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was court-martialed for domestic violence in 2014 while serving in the Air Force in New Mexico. He was sentenced to a year in prison and discharged for bad conduct after assaulting his wife and cracking the skull of his baby stepson.
Yet Air Force officials never reported Kelley’s offenses to the FBI, and never entered his name in the National Crime Information Center database, which would have flagged him during a background check and scuttled his purchase of the assault rifle used in the massacre.
Glitches in the reporting system can lead to deadly consequences. Complicating matters further in Kelley’s case, he served his sentence in a Navy brig because the Air Force doesn’t operate its own prisons. But Navy regulations don’t require forwarding a fingerprint card or conviction record to the FBI, according to The Washington Post.
It has long been clear that more comprehensive reporting on domestic violence is needed on both the federal and state level. A bill introduced last week in the US House of Representatives would provide incentives to states that improve their domestic violence records — an important step in improving the quality of the NCIC database. The bill, cosponsored by Representative Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Kathleen Rice, a New York Democrat, has bipartisan support; Congress should muster the courage to pass it. And every state should close the so-called boyfriend loophole in laws that protect married women but leave others out in the cold. Surrender laws, which require abusers to turn in weapons stored at home, should also be expanded.
On Tuesday, Mattis directed the Pentagon’s inspector general to launch an investigation of the Air Force’s devastating mistake. That should be supported by an independent civilian investigation by Congress, the Justice Department, and the FBI.
Since its inception almost two decades ago, the NCIC has been used to deny gun permits to more than 3 million people. “We can’t count the tragedies avoided,” said Jonas Oransky of Everytown for Gun Safety, “but that’s a tremendous amount of good work.” While it’s too late for the victims of the First Baptist Church massacre, reforms in data reporting and sharing may ultimately save lives.