Skip to main content

NPR

The Texas Church Shooter Should Have Been Legally Barred From Owning Guns

Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET

Devin Patrick Kelley had an assault-style rifle and two handguns — all purchased by him, according to federal officials — when he drove to a small Texas church on Sunday, opened fire and killed at least 26 people.

He also had a known record of domestic violence. In 2012, while he was in the U.S. Air Force, he was court-martialed for assaulting his then-wife and their child. Under federal law, his conviction disqualified him from legally possessing a firearm.

Retired Col. Don Christensen, who was the chief prosecutor for the Air Force at the time of Kelley's general court-martial, tells NPR the case was serious.

"He fractured his baby stepson's skull," Christensen says.

Kelley accepted a plea deal, pleading guilty to a charge of assault on his wife and to a charge of "intentionally inflicting grievous bodily harm" on the child, Christensen says. His crimes were punishable by up to 5 years confinement (the military equivalent of a prison term). As part of the deal, Kelley received an 18-month cap on his confinement, and was ultimately sentenced to 12 months.

Kelley's punitive discharge — a bad conduct discharge — did not prohibit him from owning a gun, as a dishonorable discharge would have.

But under federal law, anyone convicted of "a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" is prohibited from possessing a firearm. The same is true for anyone convicted of "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence," under a provision that allows no exception for the military or law enforcement.

Kelley's conviction qualified under both categories, Christensen says.

An official at the Pentagon tells NPR's Tom Bowman that a mistake resulted in neither the arrest nor the conviction being listed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the database that would have flagged him as ineligible to purchase a firearm.

"This was mishandled by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where Kelley was serving when he was arrested," Tom reports. "An investigation is now underway, and the Air Force is taking it very seriously, said the source."

Kelley purchased four guns over a four-year period, according to federal officials; all those purchases were made after his court-martial conviction.

There are some "gaping holes" in the current background check system, as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reported last year, which can allow people who should fail background checks to buy guns anyway.

An undated photo provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety shows Devin Kelley, the suspect in Sunday's shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Texas Department of Public Safety via AP)

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X