Texas Church Massacre Victims Want Answers From the Air Force

Lawyers begin the process of trying to hold the U.S. government liable for failing to report the shooter’s earlier convictions.

The First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs is turned into a memorial to honor those who died. 

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America

Relatives of those killed in a Texas church shooting earlier this month want to know more about how the gunman was able to purchase firearms despite a history of domestic violence. Over two dozen were killed in the attack and the alleged shooter, a former Air Force airman, died following the shooting.

Lawyers for the victims filed a wrongful-death claim with the Secretary of the Air Force in an effort to determine negligence under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Twenty-six people, including as many as 14 children, were killed Nov. 5 at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. The suspect, Devin Kelley, was possibly motivated by a domestic dispute, the Texas Department of Public Safety has said. Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his wife and child. He was sentenced to 12 months’ confinement and later received a bad conduct discharge.

“Under a 1996 law preventing spouse and child abusers from possessing firearms, the service’s Office of Special Investigations should have entered that conviction into an FBI database,” attorney Rob Ammons said in a statement on Tuesday. “The office didn’t, the Air Force has admitted. What’s more, the acts Kelley pleaded guilty to—breaking his baby stepson’s skull and hitting and kicking his then-wife—were punishable by imprisonment of more than a year. That qualifies them as felonies, which must be entered into the database.”

The claimants represented by Ammons include Joe and Claryce Holcombe, whose son Bryan was shot and killed. The couple “has suffered grievous mental anguish from” his death, the claim form states. Ammons alleged Bryan’s death was caused, “in whole or in part, by the institutional failures of the U.S. Department of Defense, including, but not limited to, the U.S. Air Force.” Ammons said in a statement that he wanted the military to provide an explanation for its actions.

Typically, crimes associated with domestic violence are entered into a federal database, records of which are checked before an individual is allowed to purchase a firearm from a licensed retailer. The military conceded that Kelley’s history wasn’t entered into the federal database. 

“The Air Force has launched a review of how the service handled the criminal records of former Airman Devin P. Kelley following his 2012 domestic violence conviction,” the Air Force said in a statement following the attack. The Air Force didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the claim filed Tuesday. 

The Department of Defense and Air Force “were aware as far back as 1997...that the U.S. Air Force (as well as other branches of the U.S. military) routinely failed to report such required criminal arrest and conviction information,” Ammons alleged. An internal review by the Inspector General of the Department of Defense discovered these routine failures, according to the claim, and the Air Force said it would take “prompt action” to report these convictions to the federal databases. 

“The error in the Kelley case was not an isolated incident and similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations,” an Air Force spokesperson told the New York Times on Tuesday. “Although policies and procedures requiring reporting were in place, training and compliance measures were lacking.”

“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,” Ammons wrote.  

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