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The Air Force Repeatedly Failed To Report Violent Service Members To The FBI's Gun Database

The Air Force is changing how it reports service members' criminal records after finding that dozens of convictions were never submitted to the FBI's background check system.

Posted on November 28, 2017, at 8:00 p.m. ET

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein brief the media on the state of the Air Force and the situation with Texas church shooter Devin Kelley, at the Pentagon on Nov. 9.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein brief the media on the state of the Air Force and the situation with Texas church shooter Devin Kelley, at the Pentagon on Nov. 9.

The US Air Force is changing how it reports service members' criminal history to the FBI after finding that the service had failed to register several dozen convictions, including domestic violence charges against the Texas church gunman, with the national background check database.

After a preliminary review revealed "reporting deficiencies" that led to several dozen cases in which the Air Force did not properly report the military criminal history of its service members, officials said Tuesday that the branch will alter how it reviews and registers offenses with the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

“The error in the Kelley case was not an isolated incident and similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations,” the Air Force said in a statement. “Although policies and procedures requiring reporting were in place, training and compliance measures were lacking.”

Officials said that the unreported convictions have now been submitted to the FBI.

Since 2002, there have been about 60,000 instances in which violent offenses should have been registered with the FBI, the Air Force said Tuesday. All of those cases are now being reviewed to see how many were actually submitted, officials said, although they declined to say how many of those reviews have been completed.

The policy and procedural changes come nearly a month after the Air Force acknowledged that it never sent Texas shooter Devin Kelley's domestic violence conviction to the NCIC database. In 2012, while stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, Kelley was charged with assault and sentenced to military confinement. He was subsequently demoted to the lowest possible rank, the Air Force said.

Kelley's military criminal record should have prevented him from purchasing a gun. But because the charges were never submitted to the FBI, he was able to pass four background checks for gun purchases over several years, including a purchase of the rifle which he used to shoot and kill 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, earlier this month.

Lilly Navejan is comforted after breaking down while visiting a memorial where 26 crosses were placed to honor the 26 victims killed at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Nov. 10 in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

Lilly Navejan is comforted after breaking down while visiting a memorial where 26 crosses were placed to honor the 26 victims killed at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Nov. 10 in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Under the procedures announced Tuesday, Air Force supervisors at the local, regional, and national levels will all be required to verify that offenses have been correctly submitted to NCIC, including by obtaining physical proof of submissions, like a screenshot or printout. Additional senior officials will also be able to enter and view a service member's record into the Air Force's investigation management system.

"It was a leadership oversight," an Air Force spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, explaining that the previous procedure had only required officials at field offices to register criminal records with the NCIC. "Now we are ensuring that different levels of leadership are involved and mandating compliance."

Their announcement comes on the same day that Joe and Claryce Holcombe, who lost eight of their family members in the Sutherland Springs shooting, accused the Air Force of negligence and in a civil damages claim. The family says that "institutional failures" by the service and the Defense Department enabled Kelley to walk into the church and kill their son, Bryan Holcombe, his wife, Karla, their son, a daughter-in-law, three grandchildren, Crystal Holcombe, and her unborn child.

"It is the failure by the U.S. Air Force to abide by these policies, procedures, regulations and/or guidelines that directly caused this horrific tragedy," the claim states. "Although (Kelley) undoubtedly 'pulled the trigger' that resulted in injuries and death of J.B. Holcombe and others, the failures of the US Air Force, and others, allowed the shooter to purchase, own and/or possess the semiautomatic rifle, ammunition and body armor he used."

Reporting lapses in cases like Kelley's also extend beyond the Air Force. A 2015 report from the Defense Department's inspector general found that hundreds of convicted military offenders' fingerprints were never added to the background check systems, for a failure rate of about 30%, highlighting a problem that goes back at least two decades.

While the Air Force failed to send the FBI in 38% of its violent offender cases, the Army and Navy failed to do so 80% of the time.

In addition to the Air Force's review of its NCIC reporting, the Pentagon's inspector general has also initiated an investigation into what procedures are in place to ensure other branches of the military are sending cases to the database. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also ordered the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to conduct a nationwide review of the federal background check system to ensure that federal agencies are accurately reporting all cases.

CORRECTION

An earlier version of this post misstated the acronym for the National Crime Information Center.


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