If anything can be said to be a foundational American principle, it’s that nobody, and no human institution, is above the law, even the government itself. Especially the government itself.
And yet it appears that one of our most powerful and politically daunting institutions has been flouting the law with impunity, and at considerable public peril, for years now. That information comes not just from private news organizations — most recently the New York Times — but also from that institution’s own inspector general.
The institution in question, as you likely know from this week’s news, is the United States Department of Defense — the Pentagon. And the laws in question are the ones that require the reporting of criminal convictions to national crime background-check databases.
The Pentagon, it seems, has not seen fit to be particularly diligent in reporting such crimes within military ranks; indeed, Defense’s non-compliance has been a sore point for more than 20 years. According to two of its own inspector general reports, one from 2015 and another this year, almost one-third of court-martial convictions that would have made the defendants ineligible to legally buy guns were not reported.
One of those, as it happens, was an Air Force conviction of Devin Kelly for domestic assault. Because that conviction was not in the national database, Kelly was able to legally buy a rifle he used in the November murders of 25 people in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
There is of course no way to know, or even assume, that Kelly couldn’t have found a way to get his hands on lethal ordnance even if the Pentagon had put him in the FBI database as it should have. And we don’t know how many other felony-equivalent court martial convictions that went unreported involved defendants who later committed gun crimes.
What we do know, by Defense’s own assessment, is that laws intended to ensure that the U.S. armed services protect public safety at home as well as our national security worldwide have been largely ignored.
As reported by the Times, three U.S. cities — New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco — have filed a joint suit in a U.S. district court in Virginia (the Pentagon is in Arlington, across the Potomac from Washington) calling for federal court oversight of Defense compliance with criminal background reporting laws. Lax enforcement, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told the Times, “has led to the loss of innocent lives by putting guns in the hands of criminals and those who wish to cause immeasurable harm.”
There was no public response from the Pentagon, the Times reported; nor was it clear why those three cities in particular are plaintiffs. Under the terms of the suit, a federal judge could hold the defendants in contempt for defying a court order to comply with the law; but exactly who “defendants” would be is also a good question.
Whatever the answers, even Uncle Sam, fully armed, should be subject to the law.