The scene described in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was almost beyond belief. At least 26 people were shot dead, and most of them were found in the church where they were praying. From little kids to seniors, all were in targeted by a gunman as they sat in the pews. But given his history, how the Texas shooter purchased a gun is unclear. State and federal law prohibits domestic violence offenders from owning or buying a gun, and the shooter, Devin Kelley, was court martialed by the Air Force for assaulting his then-wife and their child in 2012.
The basic details of the purchase are known: The shooter bought the Ruger model AR-556 rifle, a type of AR-15 (a gun that was illegal under the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004) in a sporting goods store in San Antonio in 2016. According to normal practices, there should have been a background check performed. Had he bought the gun at a gun show or on the internet, that could have explained it — background checks are not required in Texas. But the sporting goods store should have done one.
ABC News reported that there could have been an exception that allowed the sale to go forward, although what exactly is unclear. But the state and federal law is clear — according to the Offices of the United States Attorneys, under federal law, anyone that is found guilty of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (or a felony charge) is not allowed to possess a gun. Furthermore, according to Texas law, a person found guilty of committing a domestic violence misdemeanor is not allowed to have a firearm for five years after finishing their sentence.
So under both state and federal law, Kelley should never have been sold a weapon in 2016. One possible explanation for this could be that the court martial is a military charge. The shooter received a bad conduct discharge, which came with confinement for twelve months and a reduction of his military status. But there's the possibility that this wouldn't show up on a state-level background check.
There are a number of forums of former military personnel talking about how their court martial records that didn't show up on background checks. Some of these are specifically geared towards purchasing a firearm, and the main takeaway is that you can get away with it, whether or not that is what the law sets out.
According to the 1968 Gun Control Act, someone who is "discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions" is not legally allowed to "ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce." But Kelley received a "bad conduct discharge," which is not the same.
As the debate continues on gun control following this latest shooting, more attention will likely be paid to the protections for domestic violence offenders. Everytown for Gun Safety wrote a report on mass shootings from 2009 to 2016, and it found that more than half were related to some sort of domestic dispute. That could be reason enough to consider further limits on gun ownership by people with a past of domestic violence.
Giffords Law Center details one area that might be of particular interest going forward. States don't all have laws requiring that crimes involving domestic violence be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. In New York, a law was passed that established "a procedure to be used in trials for certain violent misdemeanors to determine whether the crime qualifies as domestic violence under the federal definition of that term"; most other states don't have such a process.
Ensuring that domestic violence charges are logged into the system, no matter where they're committed or what court they're tried in, could prove vital to preventing sales in the future. Had the shooter been stopped for his court martial, the violence seen Sunday could have been avoided.