Gravestones in an american Cemetery

Management / The American View: The Inevitables

The American View: The Inevitables

Americans are asking why a violent criminal was allowed to purchase firearms, and angrily blame the U.S. Air Force for it. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger and retired Air Force officer Keil Hubert suggests that a culture of non-accountability within the USAF is likely to blame.

At or about 11.20 a.m. on Sunday, 5th November 2017, a violent criminal named Devin Patrick Kelley slaughtered 26 innocent people attending a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Kelley wounded another 20 people in his rampage before being driven off. As the story broke that afternoon, American politicians went through their usual post-massacre pantomime: left-wingers called for an overhaul of gun laws, right-wingers refused to discuss corrective action, on the laughable pretence that it was ‘too soon’ to discuss gun control. As of the time this column went to press, nothing substantive has happened to prevent such a slaughter from happening again.

The Texas mass-murder spree came right on the heels of violent criminal Stephen Paddock’s slaughter of 59 innocent people at a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Second verse, same as the first: in the weeks following the Las Vegas Massacre, left-wing politicians called for an overhaul of gun laws, while right-wing politicians refused to discuss corrective action because it was ‘too soon,’ et cetera, requiescat in pace. Then, as now, nothing substantive happened to prevent such a slaughter from happening again in some other place. Like, say, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

I’m not going to rant about how psychotically destructive and morally bankrupt American politics are when it comes to gun control. Others have dissected this obscenity down to its rhetorical quarks, leaving nothing new for me to add to the discussion. I can, however, shed some light into one peculiar aspect of Kelley’s crime: how he was able to legally purchase his murder weapon. I suspect that it was probably due to a simple – and inevitable – human fallacy.

Lazy workerI’ll give you a hint: most adults are guilty of it.

Forty-eight hours after the Sutherland Springs Massacre, reporters discovered that Kelley had a sordid, violent past. In brief:

  • Kelly joined the U.S. Air Force in 2009, got married in 2011, and shortly thereafter was charged with assaulting his wife and stepson – fracturing his child’s skull in the attack.
  • Kelly made death threats against the military officers who charged him, and was caught smuggling weapons onto his installation (presumably to carry out his death threats).
  • Kelly was sent to a civilian mental health facility (as per standard operating procedure) which he promptly escaped. Before being recaptured, he ordered weapons and tactical gear online.
  • Kelly was convicted in a General Court-Martial, served a year in the brig, got busted down E-1, and was punted out of the USAF on a bad conduct discharge (also all in accordance with standard operating procedure).

Looking at the evidence that Kelly’s chain of command had on the day he was booted out, it was obvious that Kelly was a violent criminal. He was clearly a threat to himself and to others. The Air Force locked him up and kicked up out for being a violent criminal. You’d think that his discharge would have made it illegal for Kelley to purchase or own a firearm. The thing was, it did … and it didn’t. That is, his discharge on its own didn’t disqualify him.

As USAF Reserve JAG Benjamin Spencer explained to CBS news: ‘…a bad conduct discharge is for behavior that rises to the level of a misdemeanor, and a dishonorable discharge rises to the level of a felony. ... The place where this gets relevant to … firearms is that a dishonorable discharge gets treated like a felony conviction.’ It was actually what Kelly was discharged for that mattered, not his discharge type. Per CBS in the same article: ‘Texas and federal laws prohibit those with domestic violence convictions from owning firearm. The military is supposed to report to the FBI, for the purposes of prohibiting firearm purchases, convictions on domestic violence charges ...’ [1]

Phone workerGiven how jacked up US politics are concerning firearms, I’m surprised that the reporting protocol doesn’t involve passenger pigeons. 

That’s the key part: after Airman Kelley was thrown out of the military, the Air Force was supposed to let the FBI know that Kelly’s ID would need to be flagged. Instead, as CNN reported: [2]

‘Kelley purchased the Ruger AR-556 rifle in April 2016 from an Academy Sports & Outdoors store in San Antonio …. When Kelley filled out the background check paperwork at the store, he checked the box to indicate he didn’t have disqualifying criminal history …’

The gun dealer that performed the background checks on Kelly wouldn’t just take his word for it. The dealer would have run the background check with the FBI, have seen that he was domestic abuser, and then refused to sell him a firearm. Instead, the background check came back clean … and now 26 innocent rural Texas churchgoers are dead.

Blame for the catastrophic *£&$-up quite rightfully shifted in the public consciousness to the Air Force. Why in blazes didn’t the Legal and Personnel offices overseeing Kelley’s discharge submit the required domestic abuser conviction notification to the FBI? USAF Headquarters says they’re looking into it … and I honestly believe that they are. Probably with a sense of ferocity. Even being indirectly complicit in the deaths of innocent people is horrifying for every ‘zoomie’ out there.

That being said, I think I know how it happened. In fact, I’ll bet twenty quid right now that I know exactly how it happened: laziness in the legal office, brought on by a lack of external accountability.

Portrait of young coworkers having a toastWe’re not talking ‘day drinking in the office’ levels of misconduct. More like the ‘idly dropped task’ level. 

This isn’t an idle supposition; this is the direct result of ten years’ personal experience as a USAF commanding officer. I dealt with a few good Judge Advocate Corps officers (and even a couple of great ones), but also a ton of JAs that had grown institutionally lazy. I’m not calling them corrupt, incompetent, or evil. That would make for great drama, but it isn’t accurate. I’m accusing them of being highly incentivized by their own superiors and office culture to do as little as humanly possible.

See, a military law office isn’t like life a glamourous, high-prestige, corporate legal firm. A wing, ship, or brigade will likely only feature one or two credentialed lawyers and an equal number of enlisted clerical assistants. Even a huge base like Holloman (where Kelley served) wouldn’t have a large Legal staff … and that economy of force has consequences. A military legal office is a tiny cell of expertise that’s expected to painstakingly review every proposed disciplinary action, every discharge package, every new regulation, every sensitive administrative action, and pretty much everything that worries the senior commanders. They’re saturated with paperwork. On top of that, they’re still military, so they’re also expected to maintain all of their military proficiency tasks, like physical fitness, weapon qualification, long boring field exercises, etc.

The same low staffing issue could be found in nearly every specialized military office, though, from food services to mortuary affairs. [3] What makes the situation different for the lawyers is the insane influence that they have over the unit’s command tier. Nothing important gets done in a unit without Legal’s concurrence, and they know it. If you torque off the JA, they can slow-roll your paperwork, or even kill it entirely. An irritated lawyer can make a commander’s life absolutely miserable. Hence, why the lawyers get treated like royalty: aloof and untouchable. The food service officer doesn’t get that kind of special dispensation, though, because a commander can always skip the mess hall and eat in town. She can’t, however, turn a military case over to a commercial alternative off-base.

This unusual arrangement makes a lot of JA officers a bit cocky. Further, they’re often treated as masters of their technical domain, immune from both pressure and censure. No one but another JA gets to second-guess what they do or how they do it. Moreover, because of their specialization and access to highly-sensitive information, the JA staff gets to work outside the normal integrated administrative processes that keeps the rest of the unit in-check. They become their own tight-knit, pseudo-elite function … a group of ‘untouchables’ if you will … which, inevitably, leads to laziness.

Man in computer room sleepingThat early photo makes more sense now, doesn’t it?

I know this because I used to quarrel with new JA officers all the damned time. Every time I’d try to process a discharge or a disciplinary action, the new lawyer assigned to my paperwork would push back. Not on the need for corrective action; no. They didn’t argue that a bad Airman wasn’t bad. Instead, they pushed back on any process step that required extra work on their part. They fought me on demotions, on arrests, on initiating courts-martial … If my request meant they had to do more work, they tried to talk me into just kicking the bad Airman out. Oftentimes, with an honourable or general category discharge – even when the bad Airman had indisputably earned something worse.

These lawyers weren’t malevolent; they were just saturated with work. Most of them had become accustomed to treating bad military members as an ‘out-of-sight/out-of-mind’ problem. They argued that I should take the easiest route possible and kick a man out with all of his veteran’s benefits intact rather than demand accountability. I never tolerated that malarkey. I argued with each and every JA officer, pushing back until they saw my side – the commander’s side – of the issue. How we couldn’t allow a miscreant to ‘get away’ with breaking laws and regulations because of how that would affect good order and discipline for everyone else in the unit. Most of the time (not all of the time), I was able to bring the lawyers around and convince them to put in the extra work.

The thing was, very few of my peers ever fought the Legal office like I did. I was hard-headed; a major pain in everybody’s neck with it came to pursuing justice. Many of my fellow commanders felt that the JA were too exotic and powerful to anger or disobey, and so meekly did whatever the lawyers advised … and often didn’t hold the lawyers accountable to do all of their required actions.

That’s what almost certainly happened at Holloman AFB and why then-Airman Kelley’s conviction wasn’t reported to the FBI. Someone in the JA office probably got complacent. Once the rat was thrown out, he wasn’t the JAs’ problem anymore. If no one demanded that JA follow up and file the domestic violence report with the FBI, well, then that step could be safely ignored. There’s too much to do, someone probably rationalized. No sense is wasting time on an unnecessary task ...

Burnout office workerIf you over-work people and then leave them unsupervised, they'll inevitably rebel by cutting corners when and where they think they can get away with it

Except that it wasn’t unnecessary, was it? 26 innocent people died on Sunday, 5th November, partially because the violent criminal who went on that murder spree wasn’t properly flagged as a convicted domestic abuser in the authoritative system that honest gun dealers use to vet purchasers of near-as-makes-no-difference military service rifles. I don’t give a damn about the cable news taking heads’ what-if arguments – what if Kelley had stolen someone else’s gun? etc. – That’s all nonsense. What matters is that if the USAF JA had done their job to-standards when Kelley was booted out, then the clerk who ran the background check when Kelley tried to buy his murder weapons would have seen the warning flag, would have refused to sell Kelly the rifle (or any other firearm!), and probably would have alerted the police.

One last thing: I don’t put the blame exclusively on crew who staffed Holloman AFB’s Legal office at the time of Kelley’s discharge. I understand how tempting it is to slough off seemingly-irrelevant bureaucratic chores, especially when you’re over-worked and no one questions your rationalizations.

That’s why I fix the majority of the blame ­on the commanders on Holloman AFB who didn’t hold the ‘untouchables’ in their base Legal office accountable for consistently and unerringly living up to required performance standards and to the U.S. Air Force’s Core Values: Integrity first. Service before self. Excellence in all we do. They aren’t just cute words, copied out of some marketing consultant’s slide deck. Those values are supposed to be what separate an American Airman from a violent criminal like Devin Patrick Kelley. That’s the thing about the military: no one, no matter how specialized they are, is ever ‘untouchable’ when it comes to meeting standards. People depend on every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine to do their job completely and correctly, every time.

That’s not just an expectation of military members. We also expect everyone involved in a critical process to do his or her job competently, completely, and conscientiously. The clerk in the gun store has to run the required background check for every purchase. The FBI has to return the correct offender record for every inquiry. These protocols that are intended to protect us require everyone involved to do their part; if anyone gets slipshod … feels that they’re untouchable, and therefore needn’t bother meeting standards … then it betrays the trust and faith of the entire community.

Understand: if you have a part to play in a public safety function, then you absolutely must do your job and do it right. Lives depend on it. Real people’s lives depend on your professionalism and your commitment to ethical conduct. Sometimes, those lives belong to strangers that you’ve never met … on the other side of the country … sitting in a small-town church … on a quiet Sunday morning.


[1] Emphasis added. In anger.

[2] Quoted from this article on WGNTV.com.

[3] Which, in the Air Force, is the same office. Weird, right?

Title Allusion: Brian DePalma (director) and David Mamet (writer), The Untouchables (1987 film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Shares