But the Holloman air force base Office of Special Investigations did not enter the record of Kelley’s conviction for brutal domestic abuse into the national background check system that gun sellers use to check whether potential purchasers are allowed to buy a gun, at least according to “initial information”, an air force spokesperson, Ann Stefanek, said in a statement early Monday evening.
Kelley left the air force in 2014 with a bad conduct discharge, but Geoffrey Corn, a military law expert at South Texas College of Law, said a bad conduct discharge alone would not have been enough to bar him from gun ownership.
Law enforcement officials said Monday that Kelley went on to buy at least four guns, two in Colorado and two in Texas, in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. On Sunday, officials said, Kelley opened fire on a tiny church during morning services, killing 26 people, many of them children, and wounding 20 more as they sat in the pews in a rural Texas town. Officials said there were early indications that the shooting was motivated by a domestic dispute. The youngest murder victim was roughly 18 months old, officials said, the oldest 77.
Officials said they recovered a Ruger AR-15-style rifle at the church, and two handguns from the shooter’s car. Kelley, who should have been barred from legally buying firearms, had bought all three guns himself, said Fred Milanowski, an official with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The air force Office of the Inspector General and the defense department’s Inspector General will conduct a “complete review” of the Kelley case, Stefanek said, as well as a “comprehensive review” of air force records to determine whether other cases have been reported correctly.
The air force also requested a broader review of criminal record reporting across the defense department. The department regularly reports dishonorable discharges to the national background check system. A 2016 report from the FBI listed 10,956 active dishonorable discharge records that the defense department had submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
After high-profile mass shootings in the past decade, the NICS background check database has repeatedly come under scrutiny for faulty reporting, missing records, and bad procedures, including after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting and the 2015 white supremacist attack on a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Advocates have led campaigns to correct failures to report the appropriate state mental health records into the background check system.
“We don’t have a good system now,” Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who has voted against gun control measures in the past, said in a CNN interview earlier on Monday, already raising concerns about the NICS system. “We need better information sharing, if nothing else.”
During his court martial, Kelley originally faced seven counts of assault, including allegations that he had threatened his wife repeatedly by pointing loaded and unloaded firearms with her, according legal documents provided by the air force.
But air force prosecutors made a deal with Kelley and allowed him to avoid five of the charges, including all of the charges involving firearms, in exchange for him pleading guilty to the first two charges of physically striking his wife and stepson, Stefanek told the Guardian.
“They withdrew those charges on the others so they could get the conviction without having to drag the family through court,” she said.
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