Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday Nov. 5, 2017. A man opened fire inside of the church in the small South Texas community on Sunday, killing more than 20 people.(Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
Texas church shooting 'a horrific sight'
02:13 - Source: CNN

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The gunman has been identified as 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley

US federal law prohibits ownership of firearms by those who have been dishonorably discharged

Washington CNN  — 

How a man who was discharged from the US Air Force for assaulting his spouse and child was able to purchase the firearms he used to carry out the deadliest shooting rampage in Texas history is just one of many questions facing investigators as they continue to look for answers on Sunday’s church massacre that left 26 people dead.

On Monday the Air Force acknowledged it did not relay the killer’s court martial conviction for domestic assault to civilian law enforcement that could have prevented him purchasing the firearms used in the shooting.

The gunman in Sunday’s shooting has been identified as 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, according to law enforcement officials. As a member of the US Air Force, Kelley served in logistics readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico starting in 2010.

Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 for two counts of Article 128 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, assault on his spouse and assault on their child, spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Monday. Kelley received a bad conduct discharge, confinement for 12 months and a reduction in rank, she said.

The Air Force did not provide a date of the discharge, but his military record indicates he left the service in May 2014.

“Initial information indicates that Kelley’s domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Criminal Information Center database by the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations,” an Air Force statement issued later Monday said.

The failure to relay the information prevented the entry of his conviction into the federal database that must be checked before someone is able to purchase a firearm. Had his information been in the database, it should have prevented gun sales to Kelley.

Kelley’s background

The man who opened fire at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs had previously faced multiple charges in his 2012 court-martial related to violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including several involving firearms, according to records released by the Air Force.

He was originally charged with assault and battery against his wife, aggravated assault against his step-son and four charges involving firearms – including two charges of pointing a loaded firearm at his wife and two charges of pointing an unloaded firearm.

The firearms charges were dropped prior to trial as a result of a plea agreement. Kelley pleaded guilty to aggravated assault against the child and assault against his wife.

Here is what he pleaded guilty to:

  • Assault against a child: Kelley assaulted a child under the age of 16 “striking him” on the “head and body” “with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm.”
  • Assault against his wife: Kelley struck his wife with his hands, kicking her, choking and pulling her hair.
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Prosecutor: Gunman assaulted wife, child in 2012
01:59 - Source: CNN

But despite his history of domestic abuse and questionable behavior involving firearms, Kelley was able to purchase the Ruger AR-556 rifle he allegedly used in the shooting from a store in San Antonio, Texas in April 2016, a law enforcement official said.

There was no disqualifying information in the background check conducted as required for the purchase, a law enforcement official told CNN.

At one point, the shooter tried to get a license to carry a gun in Texas but was denied by the state, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said, citing the director of Texas’ Department of Public Safety.

“So how was it that he was able to get a gun? By all the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun,” Abbott told CNN. “So how did this happen?”

Planned reviews

The Air Force Inspector General is currently conducting an investigation into what happened. The Pentagon has also requested that its own inspector general review the handling of Kelley’s records, along with the Air Force, as well as its reporting practices more broadly.

“The DoD IG will also review relevant policies and procedures to ensure records from other cases across DoD have been reported correctly,” said Mark Wright, acting deputy director of defense press operations.

Consistent with the Air Force statement issued Monday, a federal law enforcement official told CNN that federal authorities have found no records they were notified of the conviction.

Federal law prohibits individuals convicted of a misdemeanor crime involving domestic violence from owning firearms. The military is required to report domestic violence convictions to civilian law enforcement.

Classifying Kelley’s discharge as “bad conduct” rather than as “dishonorable” also raises an important distinction when it comes to the question of how he was able to purchase the firearms used in the shooting.

  • A dishonorable discharge is considered the most severe classification of punitive military judgments and US federal law prohibits ownership of firearms by those who have been dishonorably discharged.
  • A bad conduct discharge is considered slightly less severe and does not implicitly block individuals from obtaining or possessing guns.

On Monday, ATF Special Agent in Charge Fred Milanowski addressed media questions regarding Kelley’s ability to purchase firearms with his previous discharge from the military.

“In general, if an individual has a dishonorable discharge from the military they would be prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms and this specific investigation we are early in the investigation, we do not have all the documentation yet. Until we can get all the documentation to determine exactly what his discharge and conviction in the military we will not have a determination on if this individual was prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms,” he said.


While the ATF was careful to say that they have not received all the documentation related to Kelley’s discharge, the specific classification of his release from the military could provide clues into how he was able to obtain the firearms.