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Military fails to keep guns away from killer

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A woman prays with a man after a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. Devin Patrick Kelley shot and killed 25 people at the church. Authorities have put the official toll at 26, because one of the victims was pregnant. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Devin Kelley was a grenade with the pin already pulled, an explosive charge looking for a place to detonate. The Air Force knew it and so did other officials. All the signs were there, going back to his teen years: animal cruelty, mental health problems, threats against family members, beatings of his then-wife and stepson that were so severe that he was court martialed and imprisoned for a year.

And yet, the troubled man who killed 26 people in a Texas church last weekend was able to buy the semiautomatic rifle that he used to fire round after round into the congregation at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. How could that happen?

This is one of those cases — one of the worst ever — that also proves the adage frequently repeated by gun activists: We don’t need to pass any more gun laws, we just need to obey and enforce what’s already on the books. In Kelley’s case, the Air Force didn’t do that. It appears to have either ignored its reporting requirement or somehow was unaware of it.

Military procedures require that when members of the armed forces are found guilty of domestic violence, their convictions are reported to the FBI, which, among other things, maintains the database that is used in background checks for firearms purchases. Kelley’s name should have come up in that check if he tried to buy a gun from a licensed seller. If that had happened, his rampage might have been prevented.

The incident raises a bigger issue, too — questions about how we can better prevent people with profound mental illness from getting firearms. That’s especially important in cases where a person’s illness makes him prone to extreme violence.

The Air Force was unquestionably aware of Kelley’s mental state. Several months before his domestic-violence conviction, the service had placed him in a civilian mental health center. He escaped and when recaptured threatened violence against his military superiors — and not for the first time.

He had previously been caught trying to smuggle weapons onto Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and planned to carry out his death threats against his commanding officers. He was exhibiting exactly the kind of behavior that should have prevented him from ever having a firearm in his possession.

The Air Force says it is investigating the case, and so is the Pentagon’s inspector general. But according to several reports, the Pentagon has known about these reporting problems for at least two decades and hasn’t fixed the problem.

Congress needs to intervene, and it appears it will. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, said he’s unsatisfied by the Air Force’s response. “I don’t believe the Air Force should be left to self-police after such tragic consequences,” he said, adding that he believes such failures to report domestic violence convictions are too common. John Cornyn, another Texas Republican who is the second-ranking leader in the Senate, says he’s already working on legislation requiring rapid reporting of military criminal history information.

That legislation should be in the congressional fast lane, with broad bipartisan support.

So should continuing discussions about other ways of limiting firearms access for people with profound mental health problems that leave them prone to violence. Several of the mass murders we’ve seen in recent years were committed by people with documented severe mental problems. We appreciate concerns about the right to medical privacy, but the right of innocent people to live should carry the greatest weight in these conversations.

Devin Kelley stepped easily through a gaping hole in society’s safety net to kill 26 people and wound 20 more. That door into horror needs to be slammed shut and never allowed to reopen.

The Fayetteville Observer

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