SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – The man who carried out one of the deadliest U.S. mass shootings was able to buy guns legally because a prior domestic violence conviction while he was in the Air Force was never put into an FBI database used in background checks, officials said.
Devin Kelley, the gunman in Sunday’s massacre at a church in rural southeastern Texas, was convicted by court-martial of assaulting his first wife and stepson while serving in the U.S. Air Force in 2012, according to the Pentagon.
Authorities put the death toll at 26, including the unborn child of a pregnant woman who was killed. The attack ranks as the fifth-deadliest by a single gunman in U.S. history.
The Air Force said it had failed to transmit information about Kelley’s conviction to the National Criminal Information Center system, a U.S. government database used by licensed firearms dealers to check prospective gun buyers for criminal backgrounds.
The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the military, called the failure to enter Kelley’s record into the database “appalling.”
“I don’t believe that the Air Force should be left to self-police after such tragic consequences,” Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas said in a statement. “The failure to properly report domestic violence convictions may be a systemic issue.”
The dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years. Twenty others were wounded, with 10 still in critical condition late on Monday, officials said.
Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his getaway vehicle, where authorities found two handguns, Freeman Martin, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, told a news conference on Monday.
Kelley was also wounded by a resident who heard the gunshot, grabbed his own rifle and raced to the church, shooting the 26-year-old twice as he fled.
The massacre stirred an ongoing debate over gun ownership, which is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Guns are part of the fabric of life in rural areas.
U.S. President Donald Trump on an Asia trip told reporters he believed stricter reviews of gun purchases would have had no effect on Sunday’s massacre.
“There would have been no difference,” Trump said while on a visit to South Korea. He added that stricter gun laws might have prevented the man who shot Kelley from acting as he did.
“You would have had hundreds more dead,” Trump said.
AIR FORCE INQUIRY
The Air Force opened an inquiry into how it handled the former airman’s criminal record, and the U.S. Defense Department has requested a review by its inspector general to ensure that other cases “have been reported correctly,” Pentagon officials said.
Firearms experts said the case involving Kelley, who spent a year in military detention before his bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force in 2014, has exposed a previously unnoticed weak link in the system of background checks.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters en route to Brussels that the Air Force was still working to determine exactly how the error occurred.
“First I have to define what the problem is. If the problem is we didn’t put something out, we will correct that,” Mattis said.
It is illegal under federal law to sell a gun to someone who has been convicted of a crime involving domestic violence against a spouse or child.
Federal databases did not contain any information that would have barred Kelley from legally buying any of three weapons police recovered from their investigation, said Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in San Antonio.
Kelley stormed into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, population about 400, opening fire with a Ruger AR-556 assault rifle.
Authorities said Kelley had been involved in a domestic dispute with the parents of his second wife, whom he married in 2014, and had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law before the shooting.
Although his in-laws were known to occasionally attend services at First Baptist, Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said family members were not there on Sunday.
Martin said investigators found hundreds of spent shell casings inside the church after the shooting as well as 15 empty 30-round ammunition magazines.
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Idrees Ali travelling with U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait