Last November, the tragic murder of 26 people in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas shined a light on what appeared to be a grave error in the Air Force’s procedures regarding service members separated for committing violent crimes. The shooter, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, should have been barred from purchasing the firearm used in the attack after multiple domestic assault convictions under the Uniform Code of Military Conduct, and, in the ensuing investigation, it was revealed that he had even been involuntarily hospitalized by Air Force officials after making threats against the lives of his chain of command.
While there was no question that Kelley’s omission from the FBI’s background check database was an error, the question persisted: was Kelley’s ability to purchase multiple firearms despite his Bad Conduct Discharge due to a simple mistake made by Air Force administration, or were the tragic events in Sutherland Springs the result of systemic issues? According to a report revealed by CNN on Monday, it would appear that the latter was the case. Since November, the Department of Defense has added more than 4,000 names to the list of dishonorably discharged veterans barred from owning firearms — as a frame of reference, that figure represents a nearly 40% increase in the total number of veterans listed.
It comes as no surprise that the military has added more names to the list of veterans that are not eligible to purchase firearms, of course. As SOFREP surmised at the time, one factor that likely enabled Kelley’s omission from the FBI database was a simple matter of semantics. A conviction for domestic abuse such as Kelley’s should bar someone from purchasing a firearm, but a conviction for regular assault charges does not draw any such distinction under civilian law. Because the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not establish a clear distinction between domestic assault and otherwise, the clerks responsible for Kelley’s case likely did not know they needed to inform the FBI of his conviction.
That explanation does not excuse the error, but does shine some light on how such a dangerous individual may have been able to slip through the cracks, and points to an important change of procedure being necessary to avoid such mistakes in the future. However, the addition of 4,000 names to the list of dishonorably discharged veterans barred from purchasing firearms per the FBI’s database in the months since seem to indicate broader issues than miscommunications involving assault — especially since that figure represents dishonorable discharges, and doesn’t even appear to include those given Bad Conduct discharges like Kelley.
The number of veterans listed as barred from purchasing firearms due to a dishonorable discharge had been floating at around 11,000 since 2015. In November, following the Sutherland Springs shooting, that number ballooned up to 14,825. By December, it was at 15,583, and now it sits at 15,597. It would appear, then, that the rush to add names to the list has tapered off following a Defense Department-wide scrub of records.
“I’m encouraged that they’re trying to hurry up and get through this backlog. But it was a failure of duty and responsibility to not report these people to the federal database. I’m highly disappointed,” said U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Virginia), a former Navy SEAL now working on a bill to improve the background check system.
The Air Force wasn’t the only branch complicit in failing to report dishonorable and bad conduct discharges to the FBI background check database when required. Other branches have since announced their own efforts to identify and correct issues with their own reporting, and the numbers seem to support the idea that all of the military branches have been forced to make corrections since Kelley’s action brought the issue to the forefront of the public’s concerns.
“We are in the process of conducting a thorough review of past cases to ensure that any prior failures to report are rectified and the appropriate information is provided to the FBI,” said Capt. Christopher R. Harrison, a spokesman for the Marines. He said the Marine Corps was planning changes that would “increase the speed and efficacy of reporting.”
Image courtesy of the Associated Press.