Incompetence among military personnel specialists is a common gripe for service members. Anyone who has experienced a “pay problem,” difficulty in promotion, or fouled-up orders for change of station will tell you that dealing with the personnel office is among the worst bureaucratic nightmares in the military. For the most part, the charge of incompetence is undeserved. The system in unwieldy, and there are so many conflicting regulations that getting a straight answer is exceedingly difficult.

But whatever the reason for the breakdowns, the situation has turned deadly.

A conviction unreported

On Sunday, a small town in central Texas experienced a massacre of historic proportions when disgraced airman Devin Kelley entered the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs and opened fire, killing 26 people and wounding 20 others. And it was entirely preventable, but for a massive foul-up by the U.S. Air Force.

To make matters worse, this monumental mistake might not be confined to the Air force alone, leaving open the question of how many other former service members who are supposed to be ineligible to own a firearm actually do.

While serving in the Air Force, Kelley was convicted by a court martial of assaulting his wife and infant stepson. His assault fractured the young boy’s skull. He served a year in confinement and received a bad conduct discharge, only one step above a dishonorable discharge.

Before his trial, he had made death threats against his chain of command and was caught trying to bring weapon onto Holloman Air Force Base, presumably to carry out those threats. Part of pre-trial confinement was in a mental health facility, from which he tried to order weapons and body armor over the internet, and from which he later escaped.

This information prevented him from receiving a Texas concealed weapons permit, and should have prevented him from purchasing any firearm at all.

But it did not. And it is entirely the Air Force’s fault.

This “may be a systemic issue.”

Many officials, such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) think the problem is bigger than just Kelley’s conviction.

Kelley’s conviction should have been entered into the FBI‘s National Criminal Information Center database, one of three sources of information used in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Passing the NICS is a requirement for purchase of a firearm. But the Air Force admits that it did not make that entry.

In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Thornberry called that information “appalling,” adding that he is “concerned that the failure to properly report domestic violence convictions may be a systemic issue.” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), chairman of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, said he is committed to working with the DoD’s inspector general to address “any systemic reporting issues” related to domestic violence.

Since the passage of the “Lautenberg Amendment” in 1996, those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors, and those subject to a restraining order related to domestic violence, join felons among the list of who expressly may not own a firearm. But according to military lawyers who have spoken to Daily Intel, the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not have a specific crime for domestic violence. Anyone entering court martial conviction information into the NCIC would need to know how to code the conviction properly.

It seems that the Air Force, and perhaps the entire military establishment, does not know how to do that. Fixing this massive oversight, and fixing it quickly, is a deadly serious matter and should become the top priority of the Secretary of Defense. After all, the militaries sworn to protect “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

That includes those guilty of  domestic violence.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin