Air Force error allowed Texas gunman to buy weapons

New details also emerge, including possible motive
Bobby Tapia prays in the lot of a gas station across the street from First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Bobby Tapia prays in the lot of a gas station across the street from First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — A day after a gunman massacred parishioners in a small Texas church, the Air Force admitted Monday that it had failed to enter the man’s domestic violence court-martial into a federal database that could have blocked him from buying the rifle he used to kill 26 people.

The conviction of the gunman, Devin P. Kelley, for domestic assault on his wife and infant stepson — he had cracked the child’s skull — should have stopped Kelley from legally purchasing the military-style rifle and three other guns he bought in the past four years. But that information was never entered by the Air Force into the federal database for background checks on gun purchasers, the service said.

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“The Air Force has launched a review of how the service handled the criminal records of former Airman Devin P. Kelley following his 2012 domestic violence conviction,” the Air Force said in a statement. “Federal law prohibited him from buying or possessing firearms after this conviction.”

The statement said that Heather Wilson, Air Force secretary, and Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, had ordered the Air Force inspector general to work with the Pentagon’s inspector general to “conduct a complete review of the Kelley case and relevant policies and procedures.”

The Air Force also said it was looking into whether other convictions had been improperly left unreported. “The service will also conduct a comprehensive review of Air Force databases to ensure records in other cases have been reported correctly,” the statement said.

New details of the killings also emerged Monday, including a possible motive. Local law enforcement officials said Kelley may have been driven by anger toward his estranged wife’s family, the final chapter in a life full of domestic rage. In addition to his court-martial, in which his previous wife was the victim, he had been investigated on a rape complaint, though he was not charged and his relationship to the victim was unclear.

His current wife’s mother attended First Baptist Church, the target of Kelley’s rage Sunday. “The suspect’s mother-in-law attended this church,” Freeman Martin, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said during a news conference Monday morning. “We know that he had made threatening texts and we can’t go into detail into that domestic situation that is continuing to be vetted and thoroughly investigated.”

“This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs, it was a domestic situation going on,” Martin added.

Kelley’s wife and her parents were not at the church Sunday, authorities said, but a relative of his wife’s grandmother posted on Facebook that the grandmother was there and had been killed.

Kelley, who was dressed in all black and wore a skull-face mask, left the church, engaged in a gunfight with a bystander outside, and then led the bystander and another man in a dramatic car chase that ended with Kelley dead behind the wheel. He had shot himself, investigators said, though it was not yet clear whether that bullet had caused his death.

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