WASHINGTON — Congressional lawmakers are demanding answers on how Air Force officials could have mishandled legal information that may have prevented a former airman from killing 26 people in a church shooting on Sunday.
“It is unbelievably devastating to hear that multiple data entry errors by the Air Force allowed someone who should have been prohibited from purchasing a firearm to buy one, and use it to kill at least 26 people,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“This tragedy should not have happened, and these processes need to be fixed.”
Texas law enforcement officials said that 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley — a former airman who served in logistics readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico — shot at least 46 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs as part of a domestic dispute.
Kelley had spent a year in military confinement after a court-martial found him guilty of other domestic violence charges, including harming his infant stepson.
But after he was dismissed from the service with a bad conduct discharge, Air Force officials failed to enter Kelley’s domestic violence conviction into the National Criminal Information Center’s database, which would have barred him from having guns.
Service officials are now conducting an investigation into why those mistakes were made. Capitol Hill lawmakers say they’ll keep a close watch on that work. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., promised “rigorous oversight” from his panel on the issue.
Sign up for the Early Bird Brief Get the military's most comprehensive news and information every morning
“It’s critical that each of the military services take the steps necessary to ensure that similar mistakes have not occurred and will not occur in the future,” he said.
The committee’s ranking member — Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. — said he wants to know if the Air Force mistake was an isolated case or part of larger failures in the military’s information sharing. He also wants the investigation broadened.
“Every service needs to investigate to determine if there are systemic issues that result in failure to report information on violent crimes, particularly domestic violence cases, to the FBI and the NCIC database,” he said. “All necessary steps should be taken, administratively and legislatively, to ensure that such a failure does not happen again.”
Fellow committee member Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has requested an audit of the last 10 years of military justice records, to ensure proper information sharing is taking place.
“Learning that this senseless act of violence might have been prevented if only the proper form was filled out by military investigators was absolutely devastating,” she wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis late Monday.
“If this can happen in one case, it could happen in others. We must do everything we can to make sure it does not happen again.”
Kelley’s bad conduct discharge made him ineligible for a host of veterans benefits, including VA health care. Federal law bars individuals with domestic violence records and certain military court-martial convictions from buying a firearm, but critics have complained that sharing of records to prevent those purchases is inconsistent.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.