By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is toughening its rules for reporting criminal records to the government's gun owner background check database, after a man convicted of assault while in the service was able to purchase guns and later shot and killed 26 people in a Texas church.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday that local offices now must loop in higher levels of command before closing criminal cases, and that case officers must verify that the records have actually been added to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's database.
She also said the Air Force is reviewing past cases to determine whether they were properly shared with the FBI, after an ongoing inquiry revealed a "widespread" breakdown in reporting across both of the branch's two law enforcement agencies.
"The Air Force is sharing all lessons learned with the other services," Wilson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "When we have all the facts, we will assess accountability for the breakdowns in this specific case and, more broadly, for any systemic deficiencies."
Wednesday's hearing was convened in the wake of two deadly shootings in the fall, one in Nevada and another in Texas.
The U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General on Tuesday released a report that found that all military services "consistently" failed to submit fingerprint data for 24 percent of the convicted offenders reviewed.
One of the Air Force's law enforcement arms in that review failed to report 60 percent of the fingerprint and final disposition reports for the convicts reviewed.
In the case of the Texas shooting, a former airman named Devin Kelley killed 26 people and wounded 20 others when he opened fire at a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church.
He had been convicted by a general court-martial on two charges of domestic assault against his wife and stepson, which should have been reported to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, database.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has since ordered the Justice Department to undertake a review of the system to help plug potential reporting gaps.
Lawmakers on Wednesday expressed frustration about a repeated failure by the military to report criminal records to the FBI, a problem that has been documented in multiple prior reports by the inspector general.
"I am struck by the failure of the Department of Defense to comply with the law, year after year," said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
"There is really no excuse for it," the Defense Department's Acting Inspector General Glenn Fine replied. "It shouldn't have happened."
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Dan Grebler)