News and notes on guns in America

Senators Announce Bipartisan Bill to Improve Reporting to Federal Gun Background Check System

A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a bill on Thursday morning that would reward states for improving their reporting of criminal records and domestic violence data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s gun background check system, and punish those that don’t.

The Fix NICS Act, championed by Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican John Cornyn of Texas, would require federal agencies like the Department of Defense to issue a twice-yearly report on what records have been submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

The legislation would also make $125 million available to states each year from 2018 to 2022 to improve verification of criminal records and report them to the FBI. Half of that money would be used by the U.S. attorney general to create a specialized Domestic Violence and Abuse Prevention Initiative, focused on getting records of domestic abuse. Priority would be given to states that show they have a detailed plan for implementing better practices for record reporting.

Federal agencies and states that fail to heed the requirements set forth by the bill would lose funding.

The bill was introduced in the wake of two mass shootings, one in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and another in Tehama County, California, perpetrated by men with histories of domestic abuse and violence toward others. It has received more bipartisan support than any other gun bill introduced in this fall’s season of mass shootings. The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, along with Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah; Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California; Republican Dean Heller of Nevada, and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

Proposals to regulate bump stocks, authored after the Las Vegas shooting in October, fizzled out after the National Rifle Association said it opposed any new laws.

“The fact that Cornyn is involved is interesting. He’s pretty conservative,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York/Cortland who studies guns and American politics. “If it’s a genuine bipartisan effort, it will pass easily in both chambers. The Democrats will be behind it, and there are plenty of Republicans who, on the merits, would endorse this legislation.”

In a series of tweets attributed to top lobbyist Chris Cox, the National Rifle Association enthusiastically applauded the legislation.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun-industry trade group, also endorsed the legislation, which shares a name with a long-running NSSF advocacy campaign. The US Concealed Carry Association, a growing gun rights group, called for the passage of the Fix NICS Act, though the USCCA added that Congress should also advance the stalled concealed carry reciprocity act. 

However, Gun Owners of America, perhaps the most hardline gun rights group of note, said in a letter to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan that the bill was merely an attempt to “appease The Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC.” GOA argued that only loosening gun laws and enabling more citizens to go armed in public would increase public safety.

The NRA participated in drafting and amending a similar bill, the NICS Improvement Amendment Act, written after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. That massacre was carried out by a man who, because of past involuntary psychiatric commitment, should not have been able to buy a gun, but was able to because the commonwealth of Virginia never reported his health records.

The NRA then endorsed the NICS Improvement Amendment Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush and made $1.3 billion available in grant money to states to improve reporting of mental health records. However, advocates have criticized the NRA’s role in pushing the bill through Congress: Republican allies inserted amendments that actually made it easier for the mentally ill to get guns, and only 12 states applied for the grants that the law authorized. Almost 90% of the $1.3 billion was never actually dispensed.

Spitzer said NRA-allied Republicans in leadership positions like Cornyn hold power over whether the bill will proceed, and in what form. The legislation could be amended and weakened.

“My question is about Cornyn: Is this a dog-and-pony show to placate outrage in his home state?” Spitzer asked. “Or is he really going to push this thing through?

For Six Minutes, Rancho Tehama Gunman Tried to Shoot His Way Into Elementary School

For six minutes on Tuesday morning at Rancho Tehama Elementary School in Tehama County, California, everything went as teachers had rehearsed.

A man had crashed a stolen car through the school’s front gate. He was stalking the grounds, armed with a semiautomatic rifle and wearing a tactical vest full of spare magazines. He had already shot his wife and two neighbors dead. He had also wounded a woman and her son as he fired randomly from the car on the way to the school.

The man tried to get inside the school to kill kids and anyone else inside. But he couldn’t, because teachers and staff immediately implemented well-rehearsed lockdown procedures.

Thwarted as he tried to open school doors, the man paced around outside, looking for an unsecured entrance. He shot at walls and classroom windows for six minutes, firing between 20 and 30 rounds.

He managed to hit a 6-year-old child, who is in stable condition. Other children were injured by shattered glass. He took aim at one parent as she dropped off her child late, but missed. No one died at the school.

Without access to a vulnerable target, the man, later identified as 44-year-old Kevin Neal, left the school in the stolen car. He went on to shoot three more strangers, one fatally. He stole another car before police managed to drive him off the road and kill him, ending a 45-minute rampage.

Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston told local press that the shooting “could have been so much worse if it wasn’t for the quick thinking [of] staff at our elementary school…He couldn’t make access to any of the rooms; they were locked.”

“This saved countless lives,” he added.

School security experts have told The Trace that the kind of practices adopted by Rancho Tehama Elementary School provide a better measure of security than armed guards.

There’s deterrence, and there’s defense,” John White, a school security consultant, said in a 2015 interview. “Guns provide defense, not deterrence. They don’t make a facility any more secure.” 

“When you’re looking for a target for a crime, you don’t ever know if there’s a gun in a facility,” White said. “But you can see that if a door is unlocked or window is open, it’s a soft target.” He said he has never advised a school to arm security guards, instead counselling architectural barriers and regular staff trainings for the worst-possible scenario.

Some teachers and parents worry that lockdown drills traumatize young students, not to mention staff members who are more aware of the reasoning behind the preparations. In a 2014 opinion piece for the Washington Post, Launa Hall, a pre-Kindergarten teacher from Virginia, wrote that lockdown exercises are like “rehearsing for death.”

Lockdown drills became more commonplace after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, and even more so after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut. The Tehama school staff apparently had their procedure down pat: Johnston said they didn’t even wait for a notice from police to secure the campus.


There Were 7 Mass-Casualty Shootings in the Week After Sutherland Springs

On November 5, 26 people were fatally shot and another 20 were wounded at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in rural Texas. In the seven days following that mass shooting, there were seven other mass-casualty incidents across the country in which four or more people were shot.

In those attacks, 35 people were shot, five of them fatally, according to Gun Violence Archive, which compiles statistics on shootings using police reports and news clips.

Four of the seven shootings took place at bars, clubs, or live music venues. The others included a drive-by shooting, an altercation at a home, and a commemoration for a gunshot victim.

  • In South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 9, four teenagers — ages 14, 14, 15, and 18 — were wounded when someone in a car opened fire on them just after 8 p.m. No arrests have been made.
  • In Dayton, Ohio, on November 10, three men in their 20s were critically injured and a 5-year-old was also wounded when an altercation escalated to gunfire in a home around 1:30 a.m. Police have not named a suspect.
  • In New Orleans on November 11, a man was killed and five people were wounded in a shooting following a disagreement in the 9th Ward around 7:45 p.m. Police have a person of interest in custody. Witnesses said the shooting broke out near a second-line parade following a funeral for a recent gunshot victim.
  • In Fayetteville, North Carolina, on November 11, Akash Talati, 40, was killed in a shooting at the adult club he owned. Four others, including the suspect, were injured. The suspected gunman was reportedly angry he’d been ejected from the club. “Life is too short for fake connections,” Talati posted to Facebook hours before his death.
  • In Dallas on November 11, Johnny Williams, 28, was killed and three others were injured after a disturbance inside a bar spilled out into the street around 1:30 a.m. and someone opened fire. No arrests have been made.
  • In Atlanta on November 12, two men were killed and two others were wounded when someone fired on rowdy patrons who mounted the stage during a rap concert just before 9:40 p.m. The armed suspect is reportedly at large.
  • In Gary, Indiana, on November 12, seven people were wounded in a shooting at a live music venue around 2:30 a.m. One suspect is in custody and police are searching for another.

There is no universally accepted definition of a “mass shooting.” The FBI defines “mass murder” as an incident in a public place that claims four or more lives, not including the gunman. Other groups, like Gun Violence Archive, define a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are shot, including domestic shootings. By the latter definition, mass shootings are a daily occurrence in the United States.

So far this year, by the broader definition, at least 2,079 people have been shot in mass shootings, 404 of them fatally. To compare, 1,993 were shot in mass shootings in 2016, 456 of them fatally.

Mass-shooting deaths account for roughly 1.2 percent of annual shooting deaths in the United States. In the 35 days between the massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, at least 4,319 people were shot in incidents of everyday gun violence, 1,385 of them fatally.

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A memorial service on November 6 for the victims of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. [Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP]

The Extraordinary Burden Placed on Sutherland Springs

Of all the mass shootings to shock our country in the last several decades, few have placed a greater stress on the community they afflicted than last Sunday’s church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, population 600.

The First Baptist Church, where the shooting transpired, was a hub of the town, which spans just a few square blocks. The building was badly damaged by some of the 450 rounds the gunman unleashed from the high-capacity magazines of his assault-style rifle. Then there are the emotional scars, for which there is no easy patch. With 25 worshipers killed, including a woman who was pregnant, and another 20 wounded, the casualties account for nearly half of the 100-person congregation.

Pastor Frank Pomeroy, whose daughter was killed in the attack, has told representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention that the two-decade-old structure will be demolished.

Pomeroy said he hoped the site could be turned into a memorial to the victims, but only once congregants “had a chance to fully deal with the grief and then come together to make a decision,” a spokesman for the convention told USA Today.

The death of more than two dozen people in a single morning strained the capacity of the town’s cemetery. Bertha Cardenas-Lomas, the head of the Sutherland Springs cemetery board is scrambling to figure out a schedule that avoids overlapping services. Dallas funeral directors are donating hearses for the extraordinary number of burials. The cemetery typically has 15 burials, at most, in an entire year.

“This feels like a terrifying, crushing nightmare,” Cardenas-Lomas told the New York Times, “except that I’m somehow awake.”

The town is also feeling the crush of national media attention that follows these attacks. Press scrums and cameras surrounded grieving residents. There was no respite; in a town so small, everyone was a potential source, and no one could get away from story-hungry reporters.

The ordeal disturbed reporter Lauren McGaughy of the Dallas Morning News. She penned an apology to the town, in which she asked those of us in the media to search for “a better way to cover a tragedy like this.”

McGaughy was invited into the home of the Ward family, who lost several members in the attack. She wrote that the sense of professional triumph she felt watching the Wards turn away other reporters who showed up at their door after her — “I got the story” — quickly curdled into self-disgust.

“It was an invasion,” she wrote. “It was too much.”

On Sunday, the church will hold its first service since the massacre, in a community center next door.

A Bill to Increase Oversight of Gun Dealers Is Shelved in Illinois

CHICAGO — A bill that sought to strengthen regulations on Illinois firearms dealers in an effort to crack down on gun violence will remain on hold until next year after it failed to garner enough support and was pulled from a vote in the state’s Democrat-controlled House on Wednesday.

The decision to delay action on the Gun Dealer Licensing Act until lawmakers reconvene in Springfield in January came three days after a gunman opened fire on a rural Texas church, killing 26 people and reigniting a fierce debate nationwide over gun-control policies.

State Representative Kathleen Willis, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said it remained a few votes short of the 60 votes in favor needed to pass.

“Unfortunately, the gun lobby is an all-or-nothing lobby, and they have really dug in their heels,” Willis said in an interview after the bill was pulled on Wednesday afternoon.

The Gun Dealer Licensing Act would require gun shops in Illinois to obtain a state license in addition to their already required federal license and would compel dealers to conduct background checks of their employees. Current federal law mandates these checks only for shop owners.

The bill would also require shops to install video-monitoring systems in an effort to prevent straw purchasing — in which a buyer purchases weapons on behalf of someone not legally allowed to own a gun — and have employees take part in state-mandated training. State authorities would perform inspections on all dealers, in addition to those currently carried out by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The bill was narrowly passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate in late April, but remained two to five votes short in the House, Willis said.

Some representatives, she said, were waiting on the passage of an additional bill, which would put a cap on the new license at $1,000 and give gun shop owners five years to come into compliance with the new regulations, like installing video-surveillance equipment.

Chicago has long struggled to contain gun violence, concentrated primarily on the city’s South and West Sides. There have been 2,490 shootings in the city this year, according to the Chicago Police Department.

Late last month, a report from the CPD and city detailing the origins of crime guns in Chicago found 10 gun stores accounted for almost 25 percent of roughly 15,000 crime guns recovered by the CPD between 2013 and 2016. Seven of the top 10 shops that were sources of crime guns are located in Illinois, the other three are in neighboring Indiana.

The term crime gun refers to a firearm recovered by Chicago police that was illegally possessed, used, or suspected to be used in committing a crime.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, and CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson, both back the licensing bill as a way to reign in the Illinois-based shops, some of which have been targeted by anti-violence activists for years. The bill does not cover big-box retailers like Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops because they do not significantly contribute to the flow of guns used in crimes, Willis said. (While Cabela’s was listed in the city’s trace report as one of the top 10 sources of crime guns, the store is located in Indiana, not Illinois).

“Right now in Springfield, we have a chance with new legislation, as it relates to gun shops and registration, that we can actually do something to enhance public safety,” Emanuel told reporters on Tuesday.

The City Council passed a similar ordinance for Chicago in 2014, and the city remains without a gun store. Last year, Illinois adopted a bill targeting repeated gun offenders.

The National Rifle Association strongly opposes the Gun Dealer Licensing Act. “The chief effect of this dealer licensing legislation is to make the business of legally selling firearms prohibitively expensive,” the gun group said in a statement.

Willis, the bill’s sponsor, said she thought recent events would have changed the minds of some of the bill’s opponents. “I did not want to take advantage of a tragedy, but I thought the tragedy would wake up a few people,” she said, referring to Sunday’s mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.


Here’s the Document That Should Have Prevented Devin Kelley From Buying Guns

One line of text in a document released after Sunday’s mass shooting in Texas should have stopped Devin Kelley from buying the guns he is thought to have used in the massacre. A crystal-clear warning on a now infamous, unsent Air Force record showed that Kelley was convicted of domestic violence, which since 1996 has prohibited offenders from buying or owning guns.

Kelley was court-martialed after he choked his first wife and fractured the skull of his infant stepson. Since the military code of justice lacks a specific domestic violence charge, Kelley was charged with assault. But it is Air Force policy to add a clear label to a memorandum called the Report of the Result of Trial, which collects all charges and their dispositions. Here’s Kelley’s report:


The key text is at the top, where letters in the required bold, centered 14-point type, read “Crime of Domestic Violence,” and spell out the actual bit of U.S. legal code — 18 USC 922 (g)(9) – that says such a conviction should prohibit someone from buying a gun.

Like the Air Force, 12 states also add special domestic violence flags or attach additional paperwork when submitting the records of convicted abusers to the gun background check system, according to a 2014 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  

Records of such convictions go into the Interstate Identification Index (for the civilian court system) or the National Crime Information Center Index (for the military). A gun purchaser is vetted against those two databases plus the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database, created just for gun background checks. But the law that prohibits misdemeanor abusers from acquiring guns requires that a case meet certain criteria before a gun ban kicks in, and on their own, conviction records don’t always make it clear if those criteria have been met. States add the aforementioned flags to make such records  unmistakable.

Consultants for SEARCH, a nonprofit consulting firm contracted to analyze how states report domestic violence records to the background check system, wrote in a 2016 report that “these flags make it easier for the police, courts, NICS, as well as all interested agencies to see any individual that is technically prohibited from the purchase of a firearm due to a misdemeanor domestic violence case.”

Of course, the fact that Kelley’s record demonstrated clearly that he shouldn’t have had guns was moot: the Air Force never sent the record to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The report on the disposition of Kelley’s court-martial was written on January 14, 2013. According to a Department of Defense report, a gap in staffing left the Air Force without anyone to process criminal records from August 2012 to January 2013.

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FBI agents near the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 6. [Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP]

UPDATE: Clarifying Our Reporting on the Military, Domestic Violence Records, and Gun Background Checks

A year before committing Sunday’s mass shooting in a tight-knit church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, suspect Devin Kelley walked into a sporting goods store to buy a Ruger assault style rifle he should have been banned from owning because of his history of domestic violence. An ATF agent said Kelley had also lawfully bought two more guns found in his car after the massacre.

Yesterday afternoon came an answer to the riddle of why those purchases were allowed to go through: the Air Force, which in 2012 had court martialed Kelley for assaulting his wife and baby stepson, said that it had failed to forward his record to the FBI, which maintains the federal gun background check system. No record on file meant that no flags were raised when Kelley was building his small arsenal.

The Air Force’s disclosure, however, only raised a larger question: How well is the military doing at preventing the batterers employed by its various branches from acquiring civilian firearms? In a statement, the Department of Defense said it was determined to find out, announcing that the Pentagon’s Inspector General will “review relevant policies and procedures to ensure records from other cases across DoD have been reported correctly.”

As The Trace began its own digging, we zeroed in on some data that we interpreted as evidence of a serious shortfall in the military’s sharing of domestic violence records that would disqualify a person from legally owning guns. The most recent numbers posted by the database established specifically to house records of people banned from possessing firearms — the National Instant Criminal Background Indexes, or NICS — show that the Department of Defense, as a whole, had just a single record of a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence on file. We took that as a possible indication that many abusers from the military may be slipping through the cracks.

Subsequent reporting has taught us that we read more into the NICS numbers than we should have. We’re still chasing the larger story of how good a job the military does at keeping prohibited service members and veterans away from guns. While we do that work, here’s where we got things wrong in yesterday’s post, the original text of which appears below.

When vetting would-be gun buyers at licensed dealers, the FBI consults three databases. NICS is one of them; the other two are the much larger Interstate Identification Index (III), which pools all conviction records, and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a repository of justice-related records such as protective orders or open arrest warrants.

Civilian courts are supposed to send domestic violence convictions to the III database, making it the most relevant database for blocking abusers from buying guns.

Sometimes a state can’t enter abusers into III, however: Records in the index, for example, require fingerprints, but not all states fingerprint people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. Since misdemeanor domestic violence is one of the offenses that gets you barred from buying guns, those states may enter their misdemeanor-level abusers into NICS instead. A high number of misdemeanor domestic violence convictions in a state’s NICS column is a sign that it’s taking action to address an obstacle to notifying the gun background check system of its proven domestic abusers.

New Mexico, home of the Air Force base where Kelley was serving when he strangled his then wife and beat his stepson, is one such state, with more than 27,000 misdemeanor domestic violence records on file with NICS. New Hampshire, whose population is roughly inline with the Pentagon’s total active duty personnel, is another. It has about 13,000 misdemeanor domestic violence convictions on file with NICS.

But — and here’s where we misstepped — a state with few or no misdemeanor domestic violence convictions on file with NICS is not necessarily failing to block many of its abusers from guns.

That’s because there’s another, more routine way to weed out the abusers among would-be firearms owners: If a state faces no legal or technical obstacles to entering misdemeanor domestic violence convictions into the Interstate Identification Index, and follows a system for consistently marking those records as disqualifying the guilty party from owning guns, then the III database on its own should suffice. A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that there are a dozen states which follow steps to make it clear whether the name on a domestic violence conviction record in the III index can’t have guns.  

To be sure, there can still be breakdowns. A federal gun ban only applies when the abuser and victim are married, cohabitating, or had a child together; the use of force by the abuser is another legal threshold that must be cleared. On top of which, by statute, gun background check examiners have only three business days to work before a sale automatically goes through. When conviction records in III aren’t clearly labeled or filled out to show that the person is prohibited, abusers can wind up getting guns they’re not supposed to have. A 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office found that the FBI takes seven days to complete 90 percent of firearm denials that involve domestic violence convictions, longer than any other kind of prohibiting record.

How many domestic violence convictions in the III database leave doubts about whether the abuser meets the criteria for a gun ban? How many states that face barriers to filing domestic violence convictions with III never manage to, or bother, get the info into the gun background check system at all? Since the FBI doesn’t produce detailed breakouts of the data in III, it’s impossible to tell.

By the same token, the opacity also means that the number of misdemeanor domestic violence convictions that a state sends to NICS does not, on its own, tell you if it’s doing all it can to ensure that abusers get turned away at the gun shop counter.

That’s also true for records entered into NICS by the U.S. military, which is where we erred yesterday.

Getting to the bottom of how consistently the Pentagon and its constituent armed services banning their domestic abusers from guns is complicated by the fact that in the military’s internal justice system, there are no distinct charges for domestic violence. Instead, those cases are prosecuted under other categories of crimes. After a conviction, the base judge advocate general annotates a report with the label “Crime of Domestic Violence,” which should mark the offender as barred from buying guns. Another wrinkle: Military bases send their domestic violence convictions not to III, as civilian courts do, but to NCIC.

From what we’ve learned so far, the military’s method for compiling the records it sends to NCIC should make it pretty clear whether the service member if the circumstances of the case trigger a gun ban. The problem may be in a failure to ensure that all the relevant records get sent into the FBI’s databases in the first place, as happened (or didn’t) with Kelley’s. 

One way for a member of the military to face an automatic gun ban as a civilian is if he or she is booted from the service via a dishonorable discharge, an offense that gets its own category in NICS. Here, unlike with misdemeanor domestic violence, NICS data disclosures do tell a clear story on their own.

Only a few hundred military cases per year result in dishonorable discharges. Kelley — who attacked his spouse and her child, then broke out of a mental hospital and threatened to sneak guns back into his base and kill his superiors — wasn’t one of them: He was let go for “bad conduct” instead.

We hope that clears things up. Still got questions? Write us [email protected].

Got a tip for our reporters? Here’s how to securely leak to us.

Our original post, as published yesterday: 

The Military Is Reporting Almost No Domestic Abusers to the Main Gun Background Check Database

A year before committing Sunday’s mass shooting at a tight-knit church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Devin Kelley walked into a sporting goods store and bought a Ruger assault-style rifle that he should have been banned from owning because of his history of domestic violence. An agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Kelley had lawfully bought two more guns that were found in his car after the massacre.

In a statement, the Air Force said that Kelley’s records were never reported to the databases on which the FBI’s background check system relies.

The answer may lie in differences between how civilian courts and the U.S. military, in which Kelley had previously served, treat domestic violence, and how each submits abusers’ records for gun background checks.  

While enlisted in the Air Force, Kelley was convicted by a court martial of charges stemming from an assault on his then-wife and young child in 2012 and sentenced to a year in confinement. The offense was the equivalent of the civilian crime of misdemeanor domestic assault — one of the 12 categories of records that automatically bar someone from legal gun possession.

But the military has no distinct charge for domestic violence, notes Grover Baxley, a former judge advocate general who now practices military law as a civilian. “We see this all the time,” Baxley said. “There is no specific domestic violence article.” Instead, military prosecutors charge abusers with other offenses, like assault.

A scan of active records shows that the Department of Defense has just a single misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence on file with the National Criminal Instant Background Check System, or NICS.

Here’s the chart, which also shows that the military has currently submitted zero records for members subject to domestic violence restraining orders, the other category of domestic abuse that gets a civilian barred from buying guns from licensed dealers. (Unlicensed sellers, who in most states do not have to conduct background checks, are a whole separate problem.)

To be clear, the chart above shows the records in NICS as of December 31, 2016; it’s possible that additional domestic violence records submitted earlier by the military to the background check system have since been removed because of successful appeals. But some states with populations in line with the military’s 1.2 million active service members have more domestic violence records currently on file with NICS. New Hampshire, for instance, has filed almost 14,000 records of such convictions. Alaska has 1,348 records of temporary protective orders on file.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which maintains the main database of background checks, declined to comment. The Air Force did not respond to a request for additional comment.

Past mass shootings have drawn attention to the shortfalls in states’ reporting of records on which the national system for gun background checks depends. Before the gunman in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 was found to have legally purchased pistols despite a disqualifying mental health history, for instance, many states failed to submit psychiatric records to NICS. Several have since caught up, but laggards remain.

With domestic violence, the FBI must contend with both missing records, as well as files that don’t clearly mark the person as subject to a federal gun ban. A 2014 report by the Democratic Party-aligned Center for American Progress found that misdemeanor domestic-violence records reviewed in background checks for gun sales are “often incomplete and require additional investigation.” The authors estimated that only three states — Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New Mexico — submit complete domestic violence records.

The Government Accountability Office reached similar conclusions regarding domestic abusers and gun background checks in a 2016 report.  

Records of misdemeanor domestic violence convictions can also wind up in a second database scanned as part of a gun background check, known as the Interstate Identification Index. A third database consulted by the FBI, the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, logs protective orders. In its statement, the Air Force said that Kelley’s conviction should have been entered into NCIC, and that the service will perform a review to see why his base failed to do so, and if similar records from other cases have been omitted.

I’m still looking into whether the military sends information on domestic violence to that list. Even if it does, FBI examiners would be left to interpret the records within three business days, after which gun sales go through, under federal law, no matter whether the background check is still ongoing.

There is one way for a member of the military to face an automatic gun ban as a civilian, and that is if he or she is booted from the service through a dishonorable discharge. But only a few hundred military cases per year result in that outcome.

When Kelley was kicked out of the Air Force in 2014, it was through a bad conduct discharge, which on its own does not initiate a gun ban.

“The federal gun laws specifically mention a dishonorable discharge. Not bad conduct,” Baxley said.

Sunday’s Other Church Shooting: 2 Fatally Shot as Services Let Out in California

Sunday’s mass shooting at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was motivated at least in part by a domestic conflict between the gunman and his wife’s family, authorities there said. The gunman, Devin Kelley, killed 26 people and wounded at least 20 more. But the massacre was not the only church shooting to occur that day.

About an hour before Kelley walked into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, another domestic shooting at a church 1,300 miles away left two people dead.

Around 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Manuel Garcia, 64, shot his estranged wife and her boyfriend after they left Mass at St. Alphonsus Church in Fresno, California. Officers found Martha Garcia, 61, dead between two cars in the church parking lot. Her boyfriend, Raul Herrera, 51, had been seriously wounded and died in the hospital that evening. Both had been shot in the head and chest, the Fresno Bee reported.

Parishioners streaming out of Sunday Mass “were really scared,” the Reverend Dominic Rajappa told the Bee.

Martha Garcia had filed for divorce a month ago after 43 years of marriage. The Garcias still lived in the same home, but since their separation Martha Garcia had begun dating Herrera.

Soon after the shooting, Manuel Garcia texted the couple’s daughter confessing to the killing, and drove to the family home and committed suicide.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said the double murder-suicide was triggered by jealousy. Police said the Garcias had no history of domestic violence.

The .45-caliber handgun Garcia used in the shootings was legally owned and registered to him.

For the latest updates on the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting, follow @teamtrace and

Texas’s Most Pro-Gun Lawmaker Says Church Shooting Is a Case for Permitless Carry

The most pro-gun lawmaker in gun-friendly Texas says Sunday’s mass shooting at a small-town church only reinforces the need to pass a bill that removes any restrictions on the carrying of firearms in the state’s public spaces.

“The truth is, I think the shooting proves that an armed society is a safer one,” the lawmaker, State Representative John Stickland, told The Trace. “It proves the need for constitutional carry. It proves the need because criminals and psychopaths do not obey the law. You’re handcuffing good people who want to be armed and stop this kind of thing.”

“Constitutional carry,” as advocates like Stickland call it, derives its name from the idea that the Second Amendment is the only gun law that matters, and that individual Americans’ firearms rights “shall not be infringed” by any subsequent statutes. (Never mind that the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether the right to bear arms extends outside of the home.)

Opponents call the same laws “permitless carry,” because they allow gun owners to carry firearms virtually anywhere in public — openly or concealed — without first obtaining a license. That means rendering obsolete a process that can involve fingerprinting, safety training, a marksmanship test and paying a fee.

There are now 12 states with a permitless law on the books; almost all of those statutes have been enacted over the last seven years.

Earlier this year, Stickland introduced a permitless bill that never made it to the floor of the Texas House. Still, it had the full support of the Texas state Republican Party, which, before the session began in January, said it was its top legislative priority.

On Monday, amid heated debates about gun policy on social media, Stickland entered the fray on Facebook.

“Government can’t keep you ‘safe,’’’ he wrote. “That is your own job.” He added the hashtag “#constitutionalcarry.”

Government can't keep you "safe." That is your own job. #constitutionalcarry #onward

Posted by Jonathan Stickland on Monday, November 6, 2017

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Why the Gun Background Check System Fails to Catch Many Domestic Abusers

In 2012, Devin Patrick Kelley was court-martialed by the U.S. Air Force and sentenced to a year in military prison for assaulting his wife and child. On Sunday, he used an assault-style rifle, a Ruger AR-556, to slaughter 26 people in a Texas church.

Under federal law, abusers convicted of a domestic violence crime are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms. But in 2016, Kelley bought the weapon he used in the attack from a licensed dealer in San Antonio, news reports have said. Two other guns found in his vehicle were also lawfully purchased. So why was he able to buy them?

We now know that the Air Force did not report Kelley’s conviction for domestic abuse to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — an oversight that the New York Times has reported is quite common.

If the military is failing to report its domestic violence convictions in a way that gun background check examiners can use to stop prohibited gun sales, it would amount to yet another way that law enforcement authorities, local and state officials, and courts across the United States, are failing to ensure that abusers aren’t allowed to acquire guns. Here are other breakdowns in the system:

Reporting Holes

It isn’t just the military. In most cases, local agencies don’t have a system in place for submitting the names of people with restraining orders or domestic violence convictions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) — so those names simply aren’t entered. Connecticut, Louisiana and New Mexico are among a handful of states that have tried to do better. Each has entered more than 20,000 misdemeanor domestic violence records into NICS.

The Default-Proceed Loophole

Just because someone’s name is not entered in NICS doesn’t necessarily mean that a federal gun background check reviewer wouldn’t raise a red flag at the point of sale. That’s because background checkers also check two other databases, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the Interstate Identification Index, which contain more arrest records. But those records aren’t always complete, and may require further investigation by the reviewer. For example, they don’t always indicate whether an arrest was followed by a conviction. Or a court record might not specify the relationship between perpetrator and victim. If tracking down that information takes more than 72 hours, a gun dealer can make the sale anyway.

The Boyfriend Loophole

Federal domestic violence laws don’t include people who never lived with, or had a child with, the perpetrator. Known as the “boyfriend loophole,” the omission allows many abusers to buy guns even if there’s been a violent assault that leads to a criminal conviction. About a third of states have laws that aim to bridge this gap.

The Sibling or Parent Loophole

Under federal law, the abuse of a sibling or parent it isn’t considered a domestic violence offense.

The Stalker Loophole

Stalkers convicted of misdemeanor crimes are not prohibited by federal law from buying or possessing guns. According to a 1999 study, 76 percent of women who were murdered by intimate partners were first stalked by their killer. A conviction for felony stalking is considered a prohibiting offense.

The No-Background-Check-Required Loophole

Federal law does not require background checks when a gun sale takes place between private individuals. In many states, it’s not hard for a domestic abuser to buy a firearm at a gun show, over the Internet, or through the classified ads. A 2015 Harvard survey of more than 2,000 gun owners found that about 34 percent of people who bought their firearms did not go through a background check.

So an Abuser Already Has a Gun. Now What?

There’s no procedure under federal law to force people convicted of domestic abuse to surrender guns they already own. A handful of states and cities have moved to close this gap in federal law with their own relinquishment requirements. At least 10 states mandate that domestic violence misdemeanants hand over their guns, while about 15 states require subjects of domestic violence restraining orders to do so.


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The End of DNAinfo and Gothamist Is a Loss for Local Coverage of Gun Violence

The abrupt demise of DNAInfo and the Gothamist chain of local news blogs sent shockwaves through their cities’ media ecosystems. The outlets helped fill a news hole left by the closing or shrinking of legacy print newspapers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. From our perspective at The Trace, the shuttering of the DNAInfo, in particular, is especially concerning. The loss of its coverage means less attention paid to an already undercovered topic: the toll of daily gun violence on isolated, underserved neighborhoods and their residents.

In our two-plus years of existence, we’ve come to rely on reporting from these outlets to inform us about ground-level conditions in cities where we do not have a physical presence — Chicago, especially. A quick search shows that we have featured DNAInfo stories in 20 of our newsletters. The number of times we shared their stories with our readers on social media must be several times higher.

“It’s a huge loss for the city,” said the Reverend Michael Louis Pfleger, a prominent anti-gun-violence activist and senior pastor of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood. DNAInfo, he said, “gave more detailed information than you would get from a one-liner in another outlet. They made it personal. It wasn’t just a blurb.”

Father Pfleger said he worried that the loss of that detailed coverage could reinforce negative stereotypes about the city. “If there’s less information getting out, people will say of a quick notice of a shooting, oh, that’s just how it is in Chicago,” he said.

The now-shuttered newsroom’s coverage filtered up into national awareness of shootings and their consequences. Versha Sharma, managing editor of the viral news outlet Now This News, tweeted that she relied heavily on DNAinfo Chicago for story leads.

“This is tragic,” she said.

Of the many stories that DNAInfo Chicago published on gun violence in the city, here are a few that will stand out in our memory:

The moms who took back their block: As local Chicago journalist and activist Charles Preston pointed out in a Twitter post, DNAinfo was the first to report about Mothers Against Senseless Killings, an effective group of local volunteers. The site got the scoop the old-fashioned way: It had a reporter on the ground for the shooting that inspired the group.

After DNAInfo first covered MASK, one chapter of the group celebrated two years on a once-violence-prone block without a shooting.

Gangs with rifles: DNAinfo steadily chronicled the troubling rise of gangs armed with assault-style rifles in several South Side neighborhoods. Its stories examined the traffickers who brought the rifles onto city streets.

How trafficking works: A story about a public school teacher who sold guns to a police informant demonstrated how easy it is for local people to buy weapons across the state line in Indiana and resell them back in the city.

Collateral damage: The outlet stuck around to cover the aftermath of the tragic death of a Rogers Park teacher killed by a stray bullet.

Rising demand for guns: Reporters obtained records showing a surge last year in applications for gun permits in the city formerly known for keeping a tight lid on firearm ownership. The story demonstrated the real-life consequences of Supreme Court decisions weakening local gun laws.

“I’m disappointed the owner decided to do that, to shut it down,” said Mark Bryant, founder of the Gun Violence Archive, a national database that relies on local media reports like those produced by DNAinfo and Gothamist, along with police reports, to catalog shootings.

“They filled in the blanks,” Bryant said, “especially when legacy media has already moved on.”

The NRA Is Opposing a New Bipartisan Bill to Regulate Gun Bump Stocks

The National Rifle Association has come out against a bipartisan bill that would accomplish what the NRA’s own leadership has publicly proclaimed  to support: subjecting gun bump stocks to new restrictions, without banning them outright.

The bill’s lead sponsor is Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania.

“The NRA opposes the overly broad legislation being offered by congressman Fitzpatrick, which is not limited to bump stocks and includes many commonly owned firearm accessories,” Jennifer Baker, a spokesperson for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, told the Washington Free Beacon on Wednesday. The group has also declared its opposition to the bill over its social media channels.

By coming out against the bill, the NRA is again moving the goalposts for what it would consider an acceptable response to the worst mass shooting in modern American history.

In the days after the massacre, as prominent Republicans joined Democrats in calling for action on the rapid-fire devices found in the gunman’s hotel room, the NRA feinted toward compromise. On October 5, the NRA’s executive vice president Wayne LaPierre and its top lobbyist, Chris Cox, issued a joint statement “calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to immediately review whether [bump stocks] comply with federal law.” They added, “The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles designed to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”

In subsequent Fox News interviews, LaPierre and Cox made the NRA’s position more explicit: The group did not want Congress to address bump stocks. Rather, the “additional regulations” should come from the ATF, which in 2011 had determined that the products qualify as accessories, not guns, and therefore fall outside the laws it enforces.

The ex-ATF official who led that review, and later a group of current and former ATF employees, retorted that there was a problem with the NRA’s prescription: It is beyond the bureau’s power to do anything about bump stocks, unless Congress changes the applicable statutes.

Fitzpatrick’s fix is more moderate than earlier bills floated by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Republican, which would have outlawed bump stocks and related products.

Instead, the new bill would place bump stocks under the purview of the National Firearms Act, which governs the ownership of silencers, short-barreled shotguns, and other guns and add-ons determined to present extreme risks to public safety. If enacted, anyone seeking to purchase a bump stock would have to undergo fingerprinting, a thorough background check, and pay a $200 registration fee. Current owners of bump stocks would have a year to comply.

Contrary to the NRA’s depiction, Fitzpatrick’s bill does not mention any “commonly owned firearms accessories.” Instead, it refers to a “reciprocating stock, or any other device which is designed to accelerate substantially the rate of fire of a semiautomatic weapon.”

One leading maker of bump stocks is not waiting for Washington to decide what steps, if any, it will take to address the threats that the Las Vegas shooting exposed.

As The Trace reported on November 1, Texas-based Slide Fire Solutions announced that it is resuming sales of its devices, which its website listed as sold out as talk of new restrictions stimulated demand among hardcore gun owners and collectors.  

“We would like to take the time to thank all of our customers for their patience and support throughout this past month!” reads a promotional email publicizing the limited offering.