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Three cities sue the military for allowing Sutherland Springs gunman to buy a rifle

The military has admitted it was "not an isolated incident."

Devin Kelley should never have been able to buy a gun.

The former Air Force airman, who killed dozens of people when he opened fire on a Texas church in November, had been convicted of two counts of domestic violence in a military court. The conviction should have prevented him from owning or purchasing a firearm.

But the military failed to enter Kelley’s convictions into a FBI-run federal background system, even though Pentagon rules require it to do so. Kelley was able to buy a military-style assault rifle, which he used to commit the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history.


Now, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are teaming up to ensure such a lapse never happens again. Officials from all three cities filed a lawsuit Tuesday asking a federal court to make sure that the Defense Department complies with its own rules.

“For decades the Department of Defense has shirked its legal obligation to provide information to the FBI that may disqualify dangerous individuals from legally acquiring guns,” New York City’s Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter said in a statement. “This lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the Department of Defense to fix a broken system that puts lives at risk.”

Currently, the law requires the military to let the FBI know if any service member has been convicted of a crime that would bar him or her from owning a gun, such as domestic violence. It must also report dishonorable discharges, which also prevent people from owning firearms.

Military officials, however, admit that they’ve frequently failed to live up to that requirement. The Air Force said last month that the failure to turn over Kelley’s records was not an “isolated incident” and that dozens of people who had been charged or convicted of serious crimes were never reported to the background check system.

All three cities’ police departments use the federal background check system to keep guns out of the hands of people who’ve been barred from owning them, according to the lawsuit. But the Defense Department’s failure to turn over records means city officials “may have unwittingly issued permits or licenses to possess and/or carry a firearm; may have unwittingly returned firearms to individuals who should not have received them; and/or will continue to do so in the future.”

The lawsuit — which was filed in Virginia and names the Defense Department, the Air Force, Army, and the Navy among its many defendants — asks that the agencies submit to federal monitoring to make sure they fully comply with the law. If they fail to show compliance, a federal judge could then hold them in contempt, according to the lawsuit. The Defense Department declined to comment on ongoing litigation. The Justice Department didn’t immediately return a request for comment.