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

November 6, 2017

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.”

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

It’s not clear if his conviction was listed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or if he would have been flagged as ineligible to purchase a firearm.

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.

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

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