Devin Patrick Kelley shared something in common with a great many mass shooters in America: a history of domestic violence.
Kelley, who allegedly opened fire on congregants at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, leaving 26 dead and more than 20 injured, was serving in the U.S. Air Force as an airman when he was sentenced to one year in military prison in 2012 for assaulting his wife and breaking his infant stepson’s skull.
“He assaulted his stepson severely enough that he fractured his skull, and he also assaulted his wife,” Don Christensen, a retired colonel and former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, told the New York Times. “He pled to intentionally doing it.”
While officials have yet to identify a definitive motive in the attack Sunday, Texas’ Department of Public Safety’s regional director Freeman Martin said Monday he might have been motivated by “a domestic situation.” Kelley sent “threatening” texts to his ex mother-in-law Sunday morning. Kelley’s ex parents-in-law attended the First Baptist Church regularly but were not there on Sunday.
A domestic violence conviction is supposed to disqualify an individual from owning a gun. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 1996 Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, which prohibits convicted domestic abusers from owning guns.
In the case of the Sutherland Springs massacre, 26-year-old Kelley came armed with an assault rifle which he’d bragged about owning on social media. Law enforcement officials said Monday he owned four guns in total — three of which he had at the scene with him.
Kelley purchased the Ruger AR-556 rifle that he allegedly used in the massacre in April 2016 from a gun shop in San Antonio. A background check didn’t yield any disqualifying information, a law enforcement official told CNN.
“The military system is a completely different system. The domestic abuse information didn’t translate.”
That’s likely because of the disconnect between the civilian and military court system. Since Kelley’s conviction came while he was serving as a U.S. Air Force airman, his military conviction might not be picked up in a civilian background check. A spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force was unable to comment, and said they are currently working on a response.
“The military system is a completely different system,” said Robert J. Spitzer, chair of the Political Science Department at the State University of New York, College at Cortland. “The domestic abuse information didn’t translate.”
If he’d been dishonorably discharged from the military, rather than discharged on “bad conduct” grounds, a provision in a 1993 law banning firearm sales to felons would have blacklisted Kelley and prevented him from buying a weapon, Spitzer said.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-gun control nonprofit, found that 54 percent of mass shootings (defined as an incident involving four or more victims) between 2009 and 2014 were related to domestic or family violence. The same study also found that 42 percent of mass shooters had exhibited at least one warning sign, like a domestic violence incident or another violent act.
For example: Stephen Paddock, the gunman who mowed down concertgoers last month in Las Vegas, killing nearly 60 people, was known to verbally abuse his girlfriend in public.
James Hodgkinson, who opened fire on a congressional baseball game in June, critically wounding Rep. Steve Scalise, had a prior arrest for domestic battery.
The wife of Omar Mateen, who killed nearly 50 at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June 2016, said he beat her and wouldn’t let her leave the house.
Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three and wounded nearly nine when he opened fire on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs in 2015, had been previously accused of domestic violence by two of his ex-wives and had been arrested for alleged rape nearly two decades earlier.
While state legislatures have increasingly worked to tighten laws ensuring guns stay out of domestic abusers’ hands, recent efforts to close loopholes in federal law have fallen flat.
In 2014 for example, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, sponsored a bill to direct funding to local law enforcement agencies to ramp up firearm seizures from individuals convicted of domestic violence, which ultimately failed.
Federal law is clear when it comes to domestic abusers purchasing guns in the future, but gets murky when it comes to surrendering existing firearms. As a result, laws vary from state to state. Only ten states currently have laws mandating individuals convicted on domestic violence misdemeanors to surrender their guns. Fifteen other states say a perpetrator only has to give up their guns if their victim has a restraining order against them.
Another big loophole known as “the boyfriend loophole” is that federal law defines domestic abuse narrowly: The victim has to be currently or formerly married to their abuser, living with their abuser, or have a child with their abuser, according to a 2015 investigation by The Trace.
The so-called gun show loophole, which lets anyone buy firearms through private, unlicensed sales, also in theory permits domestic abusers to circumvent background checks. The National Background Check System, according to Everytown, prevented gun sales to domestic abusers around 300,000 times between 2009 and 2014.
“There’s clearly something at play that brings together extreme anger and physical acting out against family members or domestic partners in a disturbing way,” said Spitzer.
While not every domestic abuser will go on to commit a mass shooting, Spitzer says that the correlation ought to “invite further study.” In the meantime, Spitzer said, legislators ought to explore ways to tweak or change existing laws, “so there’s a greater likelihood that these people can be barred from getting guns or keeping guns in the future.”