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Mayors representing 11 million Americans sue Defense Dept to keep guns away from criminals

Three of America’s largest cities filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Defense on Tuesday for failing to report service members with criminal convictions to the national background check system for gun licensing and sales. The lawsuit filed by New York City, San Francisco and Philadelphia says the the military’s “clearly broken system” allowed Devin […]

By Caroline Orr - December 26, 2017
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Bill de Blasio
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio

Three of America’s largest cities filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Defense on Tuesday for failing to report service members with criminal convictions to the national background check system for gun licensing and sales.

The lawsuit filed by New York City, San Francisco and Philadelphia says the the military’s “clearly broken system” allowed Devin Kelley, a former Air Force member who had been convicted of domestic violence, to purchase the gun he used to kill 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November.

“This failure on behalf of the Department of Defense has led to the loss of innocent lives by putting guns in the hands of criminals and those who wish to cause immeasurable harm,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

The three cities “demand [DOD] comply with the law and repair their drastically flawed system.”

Local law enforcement officials use the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System to determine eligibility for gun licenses and sales. Federal law prohibits people with certain types of criminal convictions from owning firearms, but the database must be kept up-to-date in order to actually enforce the law.

“We’re joining in this suit because reporting these records is absolutely critical to those decisions,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said Tuesday. “The background check system only works if it contains the proper records”

According to the lawsuit, the military’s failure to report “significant numbers” of disqualifying criminal records to the national database has allowed guns to get into the hands of service members who should be prohibited from owning them.

That’s what happened with the Sutherland Springs shooter, a former Air Force member who was able to purchase a high-powered rifle despite being convicted of assaulting his wife and stepson in 2012. Air Force officials have since acknowledged that they they failed to alert the FBI about Kelley’s criminal history.

In a report issued earlier this month, the DOD’s Inspector General’s office confirmed that all branches of the military have routinely failed to uphold their legal duty to report information about convicted service members to the FBI background check system. According to the report, the Air Force failed to submit records on criminal convictions in about 14 percent of such cases, while similar lapses were found in 36 percent of cases involving the Marine Corps and the Navy, and 41 percent of cases in the Army.

“The error in the Kelley case was not an isolated incident and similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations,” an Air Force spokesperson said in a statement in November. “Although policies and procedures requiring reporting were in place, training and compliance measures were lacking.”

The lawsuit seeks to address those lapses by compelling a federal court to oversee and enforce existing reporting requirements.

Of course, even if the law is enforced flawlessly, there are still ways for convicted violent criminals to get their hands on guns. For example, domestic abusers and other criminals can exploit current state laws that do not require a federal background check before every gun sale, including sales by unlicensed, private sellers.

Preventing violent criminals from owning guns would require taking on the National Rifle Association — something neither the GOP-controlled Congress nor the White House has shown any interest in doing.

And because of the Republicans’ unwillingness to put people’s lives over the NRA’s demands, Americans will continue to suffer at the hands of people who never should have had access to guns in the first place.


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