A Simple Lesson From 26 Murders in Texas

Nov. 16, 2017

SECAF Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein take questions at the Pentagon Nov. 9, 2017. Photo: SSgt. Rusty Frank

An oversimplified, straight-line description of how Devin P. Kelley’s criminal life reached its apex hinges on a bureaucratic failure. One can reasonably argue that Kelley was able to buy the weapons he used to murder 26 churchgoers in Texas because the Air Force failed to inform the FBI that Kelley was a convicted felon.

USAF knew Kelley was a problem. The service sentenced him to a year of confinement for violently assaulting his wife and stepson and kicked him out of the Air Force. What the service didn’t do next may have allowed Kelley to fully realize his violent instincts.

To its credit, the Air Force has owned this from the beginning. Service spokeswoman Ann Stefanek released a detailed statement Nov. 6, the day after the shooting, explaining, “federal law prohibited [Kelley] from buying or possessing firearms” after his court-martial. Tragically, his domestic violence conviction “was not entered in the National Criminal Information Center database by the Holloman [AFB, N.M.] Office of Special Investigations.”

The offenses “should have been reported and that’s why we launched a full-scale review of this case and all others like it,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson the same week.

Had the Air Force updated this database, Kelley would not have been able to purchase guns from licensed dealers. Instead, his background checks came back clean and Kelley purchased body armor and weapons at least twice. The weapons included the Ruger AR-556 rifle he used to shoot up the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

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There is no way of knowing what would have later happened had the Air Force properly updated the FBI’s no-buy list. Kelley was clearly a very disturbed, chronically violent individual. Still, USAF made a terrible error.

A brief look at Kelley’s life from the time he entered the Air Force shows a ticking time bomb. For our purposes, this story can begin in 2010, when Kelley enlisted and underwent training at Lackland and Goodfellow Air Force bases in Texas. In 2011, he was assigned to Holloman AFB, N.M., as a traffic management/logistics readiness airman.

Between April 2011 and April 2012, Kelley on multiple occasions physically attacked his then-wife and infant stepson. Then, in June 2012, police picked him up at an El Paso, Texas, bus station, but not for assault, battery, domestic abuse, or child endangerment.

Why then? According to television station KPRC Houston, the staff at Peak Behavioral Health Services, a mental health institute in Santa Teresa N.M., had reported him missing after he jumped a fence to escape the facility. The police report said a staffer informed them Kelley had previously been caught sneaking firearms onto Holloman and had threatened to kill some of his superiors. Kelley was soon back in Air Force custody and was convicted of two counts of domestic violence.

In November 2012, his official duty title changed to “Prisoner.”

The Air Force does not operate prisons, so Kelley spent a year in “confinement at Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar in California before being released with a bad conduct discharge and reduction in grade to E-1,” according to a service release.

Kelley’s 12-month conviction was a de facto felony, which should have prohibited his later firearms purchases. The Air Force is moving quickly to determine what went wrong with the notification and how widespread this is.

Both the Air Force and Defense Department inspectors general are looking into the incident, as they should.

Nearly half of the worshippers killed in Sutherland, which is near San Antonio and its huge Air Force community, had ties to the service. Twelve victims were “directly connected to the Air Force, either members or though family ties,” said Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff, at a Nov. 9 briefing.

“We’re ensuring that all of our resources are being made available to the families,” Goldfein added, including use of the San Antonio Military Medical Center, which “already treated eight victims of the shooting,” he said.

At press time, there were still many unanswered questions.

  • How did the Air Force miss the critical step of updating the FBI’s database
  • How common is this problem within the Air Force and with DOD overall
  • How many unregistered, violent, prior-service felons need records updates
  • What happens in cases where former military criminals now illegally own guns
  • And most important of all: What will USAF do to ensure this sort of mistake never happens again