The UCMJ May Get A Domestic Violence Update To Prevent The Next Texas Church Shooting

Bullet Points

Amid the ongoing national conversation around domestic violence and sexual assault, lawmakers are pushing the Department of Defense to better define domestic violence as a criminal offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to both punish abuse within the ranks and prevent future tragedies like the one that struck the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017.


  • The legislation: Members of the House Armed Services Committee unanimously agreed on May 9 to include the Military Domestic Violence Reporting Enhancement Act (H.R.4639), proposed by Nevada Democrat Rep. Jacky Rosen, to the annual defense authorization bill currently working its way through Congress.
  • What it does: The proposal would amend Article 128 of the UCMJ to include more specific definitions of domestic violence as any action taken to "intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound another person of whom the person is an intimate partner." The proposal would also prohibit the sale or possession of firearms by any service member convicted of domestic violence under the new definition.
  • Why it's happening: The gun-sales provision was clearly inspired by the case of Devin Patrick Kelley, the disgraced former airman convicted by court-martial of beating his wife and child who later carried out the deadliest mass shooting in an American house of worship in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 5, 2017. Kelley had a history of domestic violence and reportedly targeted the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs because his ex-wife's parents worshipped there.
  • Why it matters: While civilian domestic violence charges are sent to the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NICS), the lack of a clear domestic violence charge under the UCMJ means that court-martial convictions often go unreported, resulting in tragedies like the Sutherland Springs massacre. "We are one step closer to getting rid of this dangerous loophole in the UCMJ that allows dangerous individuals convicted of domestic abuse to buy firearms," Rep.Rosen said in a statement, "and I will work to ensure this commonsense measure continues to move forward and gets signed into law."

Sure, this is just one provision proposed by HASC amid the ongoing NDAA markup, but it's an important measure worth watching as the military continues to grapple with questions of domestic violence and sexual assault within its ranks. And given that lawmakers have been working to close that so-called loophole since Kelley's history emerged after his Sutherland Springs rampage, chances are it has a good shot at actually becoming law.

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