The parents of a man who was killed in a shooting at a Texas church earlier this month have filed a claim against the US Department of Defense and the US Air Force, alleging that a failure to report the suspected shooter’s criminal record led to their son’s death.
The US government bodies failed to report the shooter’s arrest, conviction and discharge from the air force to a federal database used in background checks when buying firearms, according to a notice of claim filed by Claryce and Joe Holcombe this week.
The Holcombes’ son, John Bryan, known as JB, was killed in a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, near San Antonio, on November 5.
“This is a very, very unique set of circumstances,” the Holcombes’ lawyer, Rob Ammons, told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview from Houston on Wednesday.
“It involves the worst mass shooting in the history of Texas; it involves a serviceman who had an abysmal record, including convictions that should have been made part of a federal database if they had followed their own policies.
“They have a policy and they just didn’t do their job.”
26 people killed
Twenty-six people were killed and at least 20 others were injured when the suspected shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, opened fire at the church earlier this month.
Kelley served in the US Air Force between 2010 and 2014. He was court-martialled in 2012 on two charges of domestic assault on his wife and stepson and received a “Bad Conduct Discharge” from the Air Force two years later.
In total, eight members of the Holcombe family were killed in the attack, according to local media.
|The shooting took place at the First Baptist Church in Texas [Jonathan Bachman/Reuters]|
“Simply put, JB Holcombe’s death was caused, in whole or in part, by the institutional failures” of the US defence department, including the air force, the Holcombes state in their claim, which was obtained by Al Jazeera.
They are seeking an undisclosed amount in wrongful death damages.
“Although the shooter undoubtedly ‘pulled the trigger’ that resulted in the injuries and death of JB Holcombe and others, the failures of the US Air Force, and others, allowed the shooter to purchase, own and/or possess the semiautomatic rifle, ammunition and body armor he used,” the claim reads.
Ammons said the government has 180 days to respond to the Holcombes’ claim. If the government does not respond before that deadline, or denies the claim, he can file a formal lawsuit.
A spokesperson for Pentagon told Al Jazeera he was not aware of the family’s claim, but said the department generally does not comment on ongoing or pending litigation.
Ann Stepanek, a US Air Force spokesperson, told Al Jazeera in an email that the air force “does not comment on specific claims”.
“We will communicate progress directly with the claimant, or their representative, as appropriate,” she said.
Under US gun control laws, anyone who has been convicted of a felony is not allowed to purchase or possess a firearm.
In 1993, the Brady Act called on the US attorney general to set up a system to process firearm background checks, known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
This system pulls information from three separate databases.
Unlike state- and local-level governmental bodies, US federal agencies are required by law to report criminal convictions to the FBI in order for that information to be included in firearm licensing databases.
But according to a 2015 report by the Inspector General of the Department of Defense, the US Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps failed to report 30 percent of convicted offenders to the FBI between June 2010 and October 2012.
The navy, air force and Marine Corps also failed to provide the FBI with fingerprints for 28 percent of convicted offenders.
The US Army was not included in the report.
The problem goes back to 1996, however, the New York Times recently reported, when another inspector general survey found that the army, navy and air force were not reporting a majority of criminal convictions.
Calls for oversight
In the aftermath of the Texas shooting, the air force said the base where Kelley was stationed, Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, did not enter his domestic violence offence into the national database.
The air force’s secretary and chief of staff directed a full review of Kelley’s case, according to a statement put out by the Air Force at the time, as well as a “comprehensive review of air force databases to ensure records in other cases have been reported correctly”.
It also “requested that the Department of Defense’s Inspector General review records and procedures across the Department of Defence”, the statement read.
On November 6, after the shooting, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he was “in search of answers”.
“By all of the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun, so how did this happen?” Abbott told CNN, according to The Washington Post.
Kirsten Gillibrand, US senator for New York, called on the Pentagon to review old cases to “prevent this deadly mistake from happening again”.
‘It was preventable’
This week, the air force said its recent review “found the error in the Kelley case was not an isolated incident and similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations”.
“Although policies and procedures requiring reporting were in place, training and compliance measures were lacking,” it said in a statement.
The air force said it would be making changes over the next months to improve how it reports to law enforcement, including increased scrutiny at the field, regional and headquarter levels, checklists and additional training.
The agency also said it has created two 30-person committees to review air force records dating back to 2002 “to ensure 100 percent compliance” with criminal database reporting requirements.
According to Ammons, the Holcombes’ lawyer, the family ultimately wants to see the problem corrected.
“They want to do everything that they can to make a difference and prevent this from happening again,” Ammons said.
“It makes this whole thing so very painful to note that it was preventable if the air force had just done their job.”