Inspector General finds repeated Air Force failures let Sutherland Springs shooter buy guns
The Air Force repeatedly failed to submit records to the gun background check system, allowing a former airman who had been imprisoned for domestic violence to buy guns he later used to kill 26 people in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, according to a report out Friday from the Defense Department’s Inspector General.
ThinkProgress has separately learned that the Defense Department has not yet submitted reports that Congress required this year on how DOD is working to prevent similar tragedies, despite legal deadlines.
The Inspector General began its investigation after Air Force veteran Devin Kelley killed 26 people and wounded 20 more at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last November. It found that Kelley was able to pass federal background checks to buy firearms despite convictions for domestic violence because — despite federal law and Defense Department policies — the Air Force repeatedly failed to submit Kelley’s records to the FBI.
“Our investigation determined that the Air Force had four opportunities to collect and submit Mr. Kelley’s fingerprints to the FBI and two opportunities to submit his final disposition report to the FBI … as required, but never did so,” acting Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a statement. “Our report describes why these failures happened and provides eight recommendations for preventing this from occurring in the future.”
After the shooting, Congress passed legislation (here, Section 8106) requiring the Defense Department to give it detailed reports of records it submitted to the gun background check system by March 1 and Sept. 1, 2018.
But the Defense Department has still not submitted those reports, according to Lt. Col. Carla Gleason, a spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
“[W]e have not delivered either report to Congress nor have we delivered updates,” Gleason told ThinkProgress by email.
The news comes after an exclusive ThinkProgress report in October revealed that the Pentagon mislead the Obama administration about its compliance with gun background check reporting requirements in 2013.
Both Defense Department and Air Force policies require military law enforcement to submit arrest and conviction records to the FBI so a firearm doesn’t wind up in the hands of anyone in the ten categories of people who can’t own a gun under federal law. Licensed gun dealers are required to run every potential buyer through the FBI’s background check system, which uses records submitted to its databases by military, federal, tribal, state, and local law enforcement.
The Inspector General report found that officers weren’t properly trained on those requirements and did not properly report records to the FBI. Still, the report said, those training failures did not absolve Air Force security officials of their duty to report Kelley’s arrests and conviction to the background check system.
“The investigators and confinement personnel had a duty to know, and should have known, the [Defense Department] and [Air Force] fingerprint policies, and should have followed them,” the report concluded. “The failures had drastic consequences and should not have occurred.”
The report also found that Kelley had contacts with law enforcement before he enlisted that would have raised red flags for Air Force officials if they had run a criminal background check. The military does not currently require background checks before entering basic training.
The Inspector General recommended changes in response to some of the failures at play in Kelley’s case and in other reporting failures: criminal background checks for Air Force recruits, better training for Air Force security forces, and longer retention times for investigative and confinement case files. It also suggested that the Under Secretary of Defense Personnel and Readiness pursue legislation that would bar people from owning a firearm if they are under a protective order issued by a military commander. The current law only includes court-issued protective orders.
A third Inspector General report issued last December found that military law enforcement didn’t report final case outcomes to the FBI 31 percent of the time, on average, in 2015 and 2016. The Air Force did better than the other branches, that report found, only failing to report 14 percent of final case outcomes. By contrast, the Army did not report 41 percent of final case outcomes, while the Navy and Marine Corps did not report 36 percent.
Those numbers could underestimate the size of the Defense Department’s reporting problem because they may exclude domestic violence convictions that weren’t properly coded, as ThinkProgress reported for the first time in March.
Friday’s report marks the fourth time the Inspector General has looked at this issue. A fifth Inspector General report is due out later this fiscal year, according to Defense Department Inspector General spokesperson Bruce Anderson.
“[W]e are conducting a follow-up evaluation to more broadly assess the policies, practices, and procedures regarding whether and how appropriate information is submitted by the [Defense Department] law enforcement agencies for entry into FBI databases,” Fine, the acting inspector general, said in a statement. “It is critical that the [Defense Department] fully implement our recommendations to correct past deficiencies and prevent future lapses in reporting.”