How was the Texas gunman able to buy a firearm?

ATLANTA (AP) — A two-decade-old federal law is supposed to prevent people with a history of domestic violence from buying or owning a firearm. So why didn’t Devin Kelley’s conviction prevent him purchasing weapons before he killed 26 parishioners at a Texas church?

The answer isn’t clear, but it may have to do with where his domestic violence case was handled: in a military court.

Kelley was found guilty of abusing his wife and her son and received a bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force. But it’s unclear if the Defense Department reported his conviction to the federal database that is used to conduct background checks on citizens looking to purchase a firearm.

The Lautenberg Amendment, enacted by Congress in 1996, was designed to prohibit people convicted of domestic violence from buying or possessing a firearm regardless of whether the crime was a felony or a misdemeanor.

“This is exactly the guy the Lautenberg Amendment is supposed to prevent from possessing a firearm,” said Rachel VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former judge advocate. “I’m not sure how he was able to obtain his weapon. Of course, the law only works if folks are abiding by the law.”

Neither the Air Force nor the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives returned messages seeking information on what the military is required to report — and what reports, if any, were filed in Kelley’s case.

Local law enforcement said that Kelley did not have a permit to carry a firearm in Texas. However, a license to carry is not required to buy a gun in the state.

Kelley served at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge in 2014. He was in logistics, responsible for moving passengers and cargo. He served 12 months’ confinement after his 2012 court-martial.

Law enforcement authorities said Monday that Kelley owned four guns, including the three he had with him: a Ruger AR-15 that was used in the church and two handguns that were in his car. The weapons were purchased — one each year — from 2014 to this year.

Some experts said the military is required to report only criminal cases that result in dishonorable discharges into the database, while others said any military conviction for domestic violence should be reported.

A 2015 report by the Pentagon’s inspector general found lapses in the military’s reporting to civilian authorities of domestic violence convictions.

Robert Spitzer, chairman of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and an expert on firearms and Second Amendment issues, said it appears Kelley was able to avoid being flagged when he bought his guns because he received a bad-conduct discharge and not a dishonorable one.

“This apparently is why he cleared the background check. That certainly poses a problem,” Spitzer said.

From Nov. 30, 1998, until last week, firearms purchases in the U.S. were denied 136,502 times because of a domestic violence conviction, according to Justice Department statistics.

“The fact this guy was even court-martialed at all indicates it reached a certain level of severity that should act as a red flag that this is a dangerous person and shouldn’t have a gun,” said Lindsay Nichols, the federal policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, named after former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was gravely wounded by a gunman in 2011.

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