New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco filed suit in an effort to make the Defence Department report service members' convictions to the federal gun background-check database. The Department is legally required to submit such convictions, but has a poor record of doing so.
Ken Taber, a lead attorney on the case, believes the military failed to report “hundreds, if not thousands” of people to the database in recent years.
“It’s impossible to know how many instances of gun violence are tied to individuals who got guns but shouldn’t have,” he told The Independent. “But the fact is, we know that here are large numbers of people who are disqualified from having guns by virtue of military convictions but are not in that database.”
The lawsuit would require the Pentagon to submit all of its compliance records to the court for review.
The national background-check database helps gun sellers and law enforcement agencies distinguish legal buyers from those who are barred from having firearms. The military is supposed to report all felony-equivalent court-martial conviction for crimes that are punishable by more than a year in prison to the database. It is also supposed to submit any dishonourable discharges and domestic violence convictions.
Devin Patrick Kelley, a 26-year-old former Air Force member, checked all three of those boxes. Mr Kelley pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife and stepson in 2012, while serving in the Air Force. He was sentenced to 12 months' incarceration and demoted to the lowest possible military rank. After serving his time, he was forced out of the military on a bad conduct discharge.
The conviction and discharge should have barred Mr Kelley from buying a gun at a store – but the military never reported it. Instead, Mr Kelley purchased a gun at a local shop and drove it to Sutherland Springs, Texas, where his in-laws attended services. He walked into the First Baptist Church on 5 November and sprayed the sanctuary with bullets, killing 25 people and one foetus.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the Air Force admitted that its failure in this case was not an isolated incident. The Air Force did not submit records in approximately 14 per cent of its cases this year, according to the Department of Defence Inspector General. The Navy failed to submit records in approximately 36 per cent of cases, the Army in 41 per cent, and the Marine Corp in 36 per cent.
The Inspector General’s Office raised similar issues with reporting as early as 1997, and as recently as 2015. In Senate testimony earlier this month, Acting Inspector General Glenn Fine did not mince words in faulting the military for its compliance problem.
“They didn’t take these recommendations as seriously as they should have,” he said.
Mr Taber said he hopes the court will be able to do what the Inspector General could not.
"The Inspector General has been issuing reports for two decades, saying that the Department of Defence and Armed Services are simply not doing what the law requires," he said. "Now we're asking the court to say: ‘Fix it’.”
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