The Air Force acknowledged Tuesday that it failed to report at least dozens of service members charged or convicted of serious assault to a federal gun background-check database, negligence that allowed Texas church gunman Devin Kelley to purchase weapons used in killings inside a Texas church this month.
Kelley should have been barred from purchasing firearms and body armor because of his domestic-violence conviction in 2014 while serving at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. But his crimes were not properly documented in the FBI National Crime Information Center database.
The lapse allowed Kelley to purchase a rifle and another firearm he used to kill more than two dozen churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5.
Air Force spokesman Ann Stefanek said Tuesday that the failure to follow Pentagon guidelines to report Kelley's crimes to the FBI was "not an isolated incident and similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations."
It is unclear how many installations beyond Holloman have experienced problems with submitting criminal information to civilian authorities, she said.
The Air Force's disclosure comes the same day Joe and Claryce Holcombe, members of a family ravaged by the shooting, filed a civil damages claim against the service. They've alleged its failure to report Kelley's criminal background led to their loved ones' slayings. Their son Bryan was killed in the church, along with seven other family members that included children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in addition to a future great-grandchild.
The dozens of reporting failures are only a segment of 60,000 potential cases in a review ordered by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff David Goldfein. A team of 30 investigators is sifting through each case and retroactively submitting incidents of crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault that preclude offenders from purchasing firearms under a federal law meant to curb violence against spouses.
Kelley spent a year in a military brig for crushing his young stepson's skull and assaulting his wife, resulting in his bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force.
Officials point to "training and compliance" gaps, rather than proper reporting procedures, as the key problem in the submission of criminal information. Several measures were newly established to confirm that reports have been submitted, Stefanek said, such as requiring the Air Force Office of Special Investigations to print out or take a screen shot of a confirmation from the FBI database.
It will take months to complete the review, Stefanek said. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered similar reviews across the military to determine whether similar problems exist among other services.
Those problems go back two decades. In 1997, an internal review found the military was "not consistently submitting criminal history data to the FBI criminal history files." The Pentagon's inspector general review found a mostly unused notification system meant to alert federal law enforcement about crimes committed by troops that would lead to prohibition of the purchase of firearms, such as Kelley's domestic-violence convictions.
The Army and Navy failed in more than 80 percent of cases to forward FBI fingerprint-card files to the bureau. The Air Force failed to send them in 38 percent of cases. The probe concluded that the services were plagued by unclear directives from the Defense Department on how and when to submit the forms. A review in 2015 found an improvement of reporting rates, with 30 percent of the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps failing to submit fingerprint cards and final case outcome reports to the FBI. The Army was not evaluated, because of limited data, the report said.
Yet the Air Force had other opportunities to help the FBI keep guns out of the hand of Kelley. Despite the severity of his crimes, Kelley received a discharge one step below a dishonorable discharge. A dishonorable discharge would have also barred him from purchasing firearms, but a decision to try him by a jury, which military law experts say often leads to more-lenient punishments than a judge would deliver, may have contributed to his relatively light sentence.