After Texas shooting, lawmakers question whether military has systemic reporting problem

After Texas shooting, lawmakers question whether military has systemic reporting problem
© Getty Images

Members of Congress are zeroing in on the military’s reporting system for violent crimes after the church shooting in Texas, questioning whether there is a systemic problem that must be addressed.

The identified gunman in Texas, Devin Kelley, received a “bad conduct” discharge from the Air Force in 2014 after being court-martialed on a domestic violence charge.

On Sunday, police say Kelley, 26, opened fire at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people and injuring 20 others.


Kelley’s conviction should have been reported to the FBI’s National Criminal Information Center database. Had it been, it may have been harder for him to purchase a firearm legally.

But Air Force officials on Monday said the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigation did not enter Kelley’s information into the system.

Chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees pledged “rigorous” and “comprehensive” oversight of the issue, adding that each military service must determine whether there have been similar lapses.

“The Senate Armed Services Committee will conduct rigorous oversight of the Department’s investigation into the circumstances that led to this failure,” committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE (R-Ariz.) said in a statement. “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.”

Added House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) in a separate statement: “News that the Air Force failed to notify the FBI of Devin Kelly’s [sic] military criminal record is appalling. … Furthermore, I am concerned that the failure to properly report domestic violence convictions may be a systemic issue.”

Speaking to reporters traveling with him in Europe, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman Mattis The US can't go back to business as usual with Pakistan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default MORE promised Tuesday to “find out what’s the problem.”

It’s unclear what the military’s normal procedures for reporting are.

Troops’ Social Security numbers are linked to their military service, so if they are arrested at the local, state or federal level, the service branch they serve under is automatically notified. But a Pentagon spokesman told The Hill that does not work in reverse, meaning civilian authorities are not automatically notified if a service member is convicted in the military justice system.

The spokesman did not respond by press time to follow-up questions about what the process is for military branches notifying civilian authorities about military convictions.

A decade ago, Congress stepped in to try to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) screening process. After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, Congress unanimously passed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, providing states with financial incentives to report records of mental illness and other red-flag cases to the FBI.

State reporting remained voluntary under the law, but Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a letter to Mattis on Tuesday that the law requires federal agencies such as the Pentagon to report people to the NICS.

Blumenthal asserted that the Pentagon has no process for complying with that law.

“The Department of Defense apparently has no system in place [to] ensure the FBI has the necessary information to enter an individual into NICS after an individual is indicted or convicted in a court-martial for offenses that may fall under” federal law prohibiting gun ownership, he wrote.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an email to The Hill that “there is a requirement in the law to enter domestic violence offenses into the FBI database.”

In addition to Blumenthal, several other Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee called for a comprehensive review of each military branch’s criminal cases to see whether there have been other lapses similar to the Kelley case.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandKlobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead MORE (D-N.Y.) wrote her own letter to Mattis on the issue, and committee ranking member Jack ReedJack ReedBiden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Senate punts on defense bill Warren calls for Senate probe of 2019 Syrian airstrike that killed dozens of civilians MORE (D-R.I.) said in a statement that every military service should investigate whether there are systemic issues.

Outside the committee, Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks 91 House Dems call on Senate to expand immigration protections in Biden spending bill Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE (D-Ill.), ranking member of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, wrote Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein a letter posing more than a dozen questions he wants answered, including whether the failure to report Kelley was the result of a failure to follow procedure, what changes need to be made to Air Force procedures, who is responsible for failing to submit the records and how those responsible will be dealt with.

In the House Armed Services Committee, Reps. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) also pledged to investigate in their capacity as co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus.

“I fear this incident represents a larger issue within the Department of Defense to report criminal incidents,” Turner said in a statement. “The Department of Defense must be certain that all crimes, including sexual assault, are properly reported across its service branches to protect our service members, their families and all Americans.”

Other Democrats, though, said the issue is larger than just the military.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyRepublicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO Israel signals confidence in its relationship with Biden MORE (D-Conn.), who has become a prominent voice on gun violence since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in his home state, said that while the military lapse must be addressed, the background check system as a whole is broken and needs to be fixed.

“The military has not reported records for years, other than dishonorable discharges. There are many states that send almost no records to the background check system. So I think it was known background system is a mess, but up until now, there hasn’t been much interest in doing anything about it,” he told The Hill. “I don’t think we should ignore the low-hanging fruit, but the problem is not exclusive to the military.”

He noted that Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMental health: The power of connecting requires the power of investing Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Cornyn says he 'would be surprised' if GOP tries to unseat Sinema in 2024 MORE (R-Texas) pledged on the Senate floor to introduce a bill to strengthen the gun background check system.

“I plan to introduce legislation ... to ensure that all federal departments and agencies, including the Department of Defense, upload the required conviction records into the national database,” Cornyn said.

The attack has reignited the long-running debate over whether tighter gun laws are needed to stop mass shootings, with President Trump saying Tuesday that “hundreds more” would have died had a citizen nearby not been armed.

Other Republicans have stressed that Kelley shouldn’t have been able to purchase a gun at all.

“How about enforcing the laws we’ve got on the books? This man should not have gotten a gun. You know why? Because he was a domestic abuser,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' MORE (R-Wis.) told The Hill.

“That’s why we’ve got all these questions with the Air Force right now. … How did this slip through the cracks? How is it that this person who was convicted of domestic abuse by the Air Force, how did he get through the system and get a gun?”

Even if Kelley’s court-martial had been reported to the FBI, he likely could have found other ways to purchase a weapon.

Unlicensed dealers, like some venders operating at gun shows and online, are not required to screen potential buyers, creating a loophole that Democrats and some Republicans have pushed, unsuccessfully, to close.

Scott Wong, Mike Lillis and Ellen Mitchell contributed