As revelations continue to emerge about the criminal and mental health history of the man who shot and killed 26 people in a Sutherland Springs church, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn on Tuesday announced he will push for legislation aimed at strengthening the federal background check system for gun purchasers.
The Air Force on Monday said that it failed to submit Devin Patrick Kelley’s 2012 military court conviction for domestic abuse to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which would have prevented him from purchasing firearms like the military-style assault weapon he used in Sunday’s massacre.
The bill by Cornyn, R-Texas, would “incentivize” federal agencies to more consistently submit information to the database.
“Critically important information from the suspect’s criminal history was not uploaded into the relevant background check databases, even though a federal law clearly requires that it be done,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Despite being required by law to include felony-level offenses in the database, the number of military convictions entered is “staggeringly low,” Cornyn said.
The Defense Department has known for at least two decades that it inadequately reports those cases to the FBI, according to reports dating as far back as 1997, The Associated Press reported Tuesday. In the most recent report, from 2015, the inspector general found that the department failed to submit 30 percent of offenders’ fingerprints or case outcomes to the FBI.
Meanwhile, new details about Kelley’s past have come to light, including a 2012 incident in which he was arrested in El Paso after escaping from a New Mexico mental health facility, according to a police report first obtained by KPRC-TV in Houston.
The report says that Kelley had attempted to sneak firearms onto New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base, where he was stationed from 2010 to 2014, and that he had made death threats against superior officers.
Several months after that incident, Kelley was sentenced in the domestic abuse case, in which he admitted to fracturing the skull of his stepson and abusing his then-wife. His punishment included one year in confinement and a reduction in rank. He was then discharged for bad conduct.
The federal background check database includes felony convictions. Military courts do not classify crimes as misdemeanors or felonies, but a crime that is punishable by a sentence of more than a year is considered equivalent to a civilian felony.
Although Kelley only served 12 months in confinement, the maximum punishment for his offenses were several years behind bars, meaning they should have been reported to the FBI and Kelley should have been prevented from buying firearms.
Kelley, a 26-year-old New Braunfels resident, bought the Ruger AR-556 he used in the church shooting in April 2016 at an Academy Sports + Outdoors store in San Antonio. Academy has said Kelley has twice bought guns from its stores and that the military convictions did not show up during background checks for either of the transactions.
The tragedy at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs is not the first time that failures of the FBI database have been linked to mass shootings.
Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who in 2015 murdered nine people at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C., had a felony drug conviction, and Seung-Hui Cho, who in 2007 killed 32 at Virginia Tech University, had been deemed mentally ill by a judge. Both should have failed their background checks but were able to buy guns anyway.
While mass shootings often spark debates about whether new gun control laws are needed, the Sutherland Springs massacre has instead launched a debate about whether the federal government is doing enough to enforce laws already on the books.
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texan chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was appalled at the Air Force mistake and unsatisfied by the military’s plans to investigate the matter internally.
“I don’t believe the Air Force should be left to self-police after such tragic consequences,” said Thornberry, R-Clarendon, adding that he fears the failure to report domestic violence convictions might be more widespread.