Earlier this month, an Air Force veteran with multiple convictions for domestic assault and who had been involuntarily hospitalized for mental health reasons walked into a Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and opened fire, killing 26 men, women, and children. The weapon he used, a modified AR-15, had been legally purchased, along with a number of other firearms police found inside his vehicle, drawing attention to the Air Force’s method of reporting convictions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to the federal background check database.
On Wednesday, the Air Force released a statement acknowledging their failure in reporting the convictions of the Texas shooter, as part of a general failure in the branch’s reporting procedures. According to the statement, although the procedures were in place, a lack of necessary and appropriate training has permitted a number of similar convictions to go unreported.
“The review also found the error in the Kelley case was not an isolated incident and similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations. Although policies and procedures requiring reporting were in place, training and compliance measures were lacking.” The statement reads.
The issue likely lies in the break in terminology between the Uniform Code of Military Justice and civilian law. Assault, whether domestic or otherwise, falls under Article 128 of the UCMJ, though non-domestic assault convictions do not necessarily bar an individual from being able to purchase firearms. Because the UCMJ classifies both forms of assault under the same over-arching classification, administrative staff would have had to review the entirety of each case when making a determination regarding the Air Force’s requirement to report the conviction to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center’s Interstate Identification Index.
According to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, new procedures are being implemented to ensure future convictions are properly reported, and a group of 30 Airmen, pulled from the Office of Special Investigations and Air Force Security Forces, have been tasked with reviewing all potentially reportable convictions dating back to 2002, in order to ensure any unreported incidents are now added to the database. In total, the 30 person team will have to review some 60,000 conviction records in order to ensure they had been properly reported.
“So far we’ve corrected several dozen records since the review began,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told reporters.
Of course, this development does not speak to similar issues that have likely occurred force-wide. Each military branch employs unique administrative policies with very few Department of Defense-wide procedures regarding the recording of legal proceedings. Although the Air Force has drawn a great deal of attention in the aftermath of the massacre in Sutherland Springs, issues like the semantic distinction between domestic and non-domestic assault, per the UCMJ, have almost certainly caused similar failures in reporting in the other branches as well. A broader Department of Defense review of reporting procedures is underway, and will almost certainly result in similar announcements in the future.
Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force