A day after a gunman massacred parishioners in a small South Texas church, the Air Force admitted Monday that it had failed to enter the man’s domestic violence court-martial into a federal database that could have blocked him from buying the rifle he used to kill 26 people.
The conviction of the gunman, Devin P. Kelley, for domestic assault on his wife and infant stepson — he had cracked the child’s skull — should have stopped Kelley from legally purchasing the military-style rifle and three other guns he bought in the past four years. But that information was never entered by the Air Force into the federal database for background checks on gun purchasers, the service said.
“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. “Federal law prohibited him from buying or possessing firearms after this conviction.”
The statement said that Heather Wilson, Air Force secretary, and Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, had ordered the Air Force inspector general to work with the Pentagon’s inspector general to “conduct a complete review of the Kelley case and relevant policies and procedures.”
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The Air Force also said it was looking into whether other convictions had been improperly left unreported. “The service will also conduct a comprehensive review of Air Force databases to ensure records in other cases have been reported correctly,” the statement said.
New details of the killings also emerged Monday, including a possible motive. Local law enforcement officials said Kelley may have been driven by anger toward his estranged wife’s family, the final chapter in a life full of domestic rage. In addition to his court-martial, in which his previous wife was the victim, he had been investigated on a rape complaint, though he was not charged and his relationship to the victim was unclear.
His current wife’s mother attended First Baptist Church, the target of Kelley’s rage Sunday. “The suspect’s mother-in-law attended this church,” Freeman Martin, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said during a news conference Monday morning. “We know that he had made threatening texts and we can’t go into detail into that domestic situation that is continuing to be vetted and thoroughly investigated.”
“This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs; it was a domestic situation going on,” Martin added.
Kelley’s wife and her parents were not at the church Sunday, authorities said, but a relative of his wife’s grandmother posted on Facebook that the grandmother was there and had been killed.
Among the victims of the massacre, the worst mass shooting in Texas history, were eight members of one family and at least a dozen children, one as young as 18 months old, officials said. One of the victims was pregnant, and officials included the child she was carrying in the death toll of 26.
Officers described finding a scene of unfathomable carnage, where mothers were found sprawled atop children they had tried to shield. Sheriff Joe Tackitt Jr. of Wilson County said that deputies found “blood everywhere” inside the church. “Wherever you walked in the church, there was death,” he said.
Kelley, who was dressed in all black and wore a skull-face mask, emerged from the church after he was done shooting, then was met by gunfire from a bystander outside, who hit Kelley in the leg and torso. Kelley made it back to his car, and led the bystander and another man in a dramatic chase that ended in a crash, with Kelley dead behind the wheel. He had shot himself in the head, officials said.
The shootings came just a month after 58 people were killed at a concert in Las Vegas, and was the latest in a string of mass killings in the United States. It led to another round of calls for more gun restrictions, though they were muted in comparison with previous tragedies, perhaps because of a realization among gun-control advocates that a Republican-controlled Washington would not give in on gun rights.
Asked about the shooting during his trip to Asia, President Donald Trump said Monday that the shooting was not related to regulations on gun ownership.
“I think that mental health is your problem here,” Trump said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. “This was a very, based on preliminary reports, very deranged individual.”
Reiterating an argument he has made after previous mass shootings — that more guns, not less, could be the answer — he added: “Fortunately, somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise it would have been, as bad it was, it would have been much worse.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., criticized Trump’s response, noting that the bystander did not fire at Kelley until the carnage inside the church was over.
“Let’s be clear — nobody ‘stopped’ this shooting,” he wrote on Twitter. “26 people, including little kids, are dead in one of our country’s worst mass killings.”
Former President Barack Obama, whose own calls for more gun regulations were stymied, said on Twitter: “May God also grant all of us the wisdom to ask what concrete steps we can take to reduce the violence and weaponry in our midst.”
The immediate question Monday was how Kelley had been able to legally purchase his weapons. In his 2012 court-martial, Kelley admitted that he had repeatedly struck, kicked and choked his wife beginning just months into their marriage. He also said he had repeatedly hit his young stepson’s head with his hands, which cracked his skull, said Don Christensen, a retired colonel who was the chief prosecutor for the Air Force.
Federal law lists 11 criteria that would bar someone from purchasing a gun, including two that would seem to apply to Kelley: conviction of a crime punishable by more than a year in prison — assaulting his stepson, which carried a maximum sentence of five years — and conviction of a domestic violence misdemeanor.
The Department of Defense has reported only one domestic violence case to the federal database for gun purchase background checks, records show. It has reported 11,000 service members to the database, but almost all of them were because of dishonorable discharges, which prohibit gun purchases. Kelley, after serving 12 months in a Navy brig in California, received a “bad conduct” discharge, which is not by itself an automatic bar to gun purchases.
Elise Hasbrook, a spokeswoman for Academy Sports + Outdoors, which owns two San Antonio shops that each sold Kelley a gun in the last two years, said “both sales were approved by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.” Kelley had bought two other guns since his court-martial, both in Colorado, authorities said.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas told CNN that Kelley had been rejected when he applied for a license to carry a handgun in Texas. State officials did not specify why he was rejected, and a carrying license is not required to purchase a firearm from a gun shop so long as the buyer passes the federal background check.
“By all the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun, so how did this happen?” Abbott said.
Authorities in Comal County, which includes Kelley’s hometown, New Braunfels, also released records Monday that showed Kelley had been the subject of an investigation for sexual assault and rape by force in 2013. The investigation ended without the filing of any charges.
On Monday, Tackitt of Wilson County, where First Baptist is located, described Kelley’s horrific and methodical path through the church. After firing from outside the building, Kelley entered the church, and fired his weapon from side to side as he paced through the room, the sheriff said. Among those killed were members of three generations of the Holcombe family, including the guest preacher and his wife, and an 18-month-old girl named Noah.
“There was nothing anyone could do until he came out,” Tackitt said.
After Kelley stepped out of the church, a man outside was waiting with his own rifle. They fired at each other, and Kelley was hit twice. He then drove off in his car.
The bystander, who identified himself Monday night as Stephen Willeford, flagged down a nearby driver, Johnnie Langendorff, and they gave chase, at speeds upward of 90 mph, Langendorff said. Kelley contacted his father from his cellphone during the chase to tell him that he had been shot, according to law enforcement officials, telling his father that he “didn’t think he was going to make it.” He soon crashed and was found dead behind the wheel with three gunshot wounds, including his own shot to his head.
Tackitt called Willeford a “hero.” In an interview with a local television station, Willeford said his daughter had heard gunshots from the church, and alerted him. He retrieved his rifle and went to the church.
Willeford grew emotional as he spoke about what he saw and heard.
“Every time I heard a shot I knew that probably represented a life,” he said. “I was scared to death, I was. I was scared for me and I was scared for every one of them. And I was scared for my own family that lived less than a block away.”
“I’m no hero, I am not,” he said. “I think my God, my Lord protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done.”
“I just wish I could have gotten there faster,” he said.