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How The Texas Church Shooter Was Able To Purchase A Gun


NPR has learned that the Air Force failed to report information about the shooter who killed 26 people during a church service in Texas yesterday. That missing information would have disqualified him from buying firearms. NPR's Martin Kaste is with us now. And, Martin, I want you to explain why this information would have barred Devin Patrick Kelley from buying guns.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, federal law is very clear that if you have a domestic violence conviction, you're not supposed to be able to buy a gun. And he did. He had a conviction like that in the military. In 2012, he was convicted by the Air Force when he was in the Air Force on two counts of assault against his wife and his infant stepchild. He actually cracked the baby's skull. And we're now learning from the Air Force that they, as you say, never uploaded that information into this national background check system that's run the FBI that gun stores are supposed to run when you go to purchase a gun.

SIEGEL: So he wouldn't have been flagged at all?

KASTE: If they didn't upload that information, doesn't look like there would have been a reason to stop him. And even if the Air Force had uploaded this information, it's not necessarily sure here that he would have been flagged because there seems to be something of a language barrier between the military justice system and civilian legal systems on things like this. They both, as we all know, use very different terminology when they talk about the legal process. And they may also have a problem talking about sort of the consequences of that process in everyday life afterwards. I called a retired colonel named Don Christiansen. He's a military lawyer retired, and he was one of the prosecutors on Kelley's case.

DON CHRISTIANSEN: We don't have a specific offense for domestic violence, but it's clear that he pled guilty to assaulting his wife and assaulting his stepchild. So he clearly should have met the definition.

KASTE: But if they didn't have that exact phrase in their documents - maybe even if it had been uploaded, it might not have been recognized as such. He says he's seen similar things happen, for example, in sex offender situations where someone is convicted in a military court of a sex offense, but because of different terminology, a civilian sex offender registry doesn't recognize that.

SIEGEL: Martin, do you know if the military has successfully flagged other people who've been discharged from the services and who shouldn't be allowed to buy guns?

KASTE: Well, we have statistics generated by an audit of this background check system, showing where information comes from, flagging all the people who are in that system who are barred from buying firearms. And right now, it shows that about 11,000 people have been flagged because of information that came from the Department of Defense. But it doesn't show why. It doesn't get broken down. The state's information - it shows different kinds of offenses, why they're in there. But the DOD information just says dishonorable discharge for almost all of the cases - all 11,000 or so. So that - you know, it's hard to know for sure why, but some have been flagged for sure by the military. And some people now in gun safety advocacy groups are wondering if there's sort of a larger communications breakdown here between the military and that system.

SIEGEL: Do we know for sure that a background check was actually run on Kelley?

KASTE: Well, we have heard from the stores that sold him the firearms over the last two years, a chain called Academy Sports + Outdoors. They say he bought two guns there on two occasions over the last couple of years. And when he did, they did run the background check, and he passed it. We haven't actually heard confirmation of this from the FBI - that that check was run. But as far as we know, they did run the check.

SIEGEL: Now, in addition to the domestic assault charge, is there any other reason that Kelley might have been barred from buying guns that we didn't - that people didn't know about or did know about?

KASTE: We're still piecing together his life. We do know that the Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that he was rejected when he tried to apply for a license to carry a gun. But, of course, in Texas, there are other criteria required there, such as training and tests. So it may be that he just didn't complete the process there. We don't know if it was a background check that kicked in.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Martin Kaste. Thanks.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.