The U.S. Air Force has been found partially liable for the 2017 shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Judge Xavier Rodriguez of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas awarded $230 million in damages after determining the Air Force “failed to exercise reasonable care” when it did not submit the gunman’s criminal record to the FBI. The shooter’s extensive criminal history meant he was prohibited from owning a gun, but the Air Force’s negligence meant he was able to pass a background check to buy one anyway.
“The losses and pain these families have experienced is immeasurable,” Judge Rodriguez wrote in a ruling handed down on Monday. “Our civil justice system only allows us to rectify these kinds of losses through money damages.”
The ruling marks the second major case in the last four months in which families of victims of mass shootings have been awarded significant monetary damages from the U.S. Government. In November, a similar lawsuit launched by families of the victims of the 2018 Parkland shooting resulted in a nearly $130 million settlement with the Justice Department. The suit alleged that the FBI failed to properly act on multiple tips prior to the shooting warning that the gunman might attack the school.
Monday’s verdict will compensate more than 80 family members of victims as well as survivors of the attack. Attorneys representing the victims said they were pleased with the ruling.
“These families are the heroes here,” Jamal Alsaffar, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “While no amount can bring back the many lives lost or destroyed at the hands of the government’s negligence, their bravery in obtaining this verdict will make this country safer by helping ensure that this type of governmental failure does not happen in our country again.”
In the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history, a shooter opened fire on worshippers at a Sunday service held on November 17, 2017. He killed 26 people and wounded 22 others before being confronted by Stephen Willeford, an armed bystander, who used his own rifle to shoot the attacker which caused him to flee the scene. Along with another good Samaritan, pursued Kelley in a high-speed chase until the shooter crashed his vehicle and took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot.
The attacker, a former airman, served for four years at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico before he was given a “bad conduct” discharge in 2014. Two years prior to his discharge, he was court-martialed and found guilty of domestic assault on his wife and stepson. He was sentenced to one year’s confinement.
In July 2021, Judge Rodriguez found that the U.S. government was 60% liable for the Sutherland Springs shooting because the Air Force failed to report the shooter’s domestic violence conviction to the FBI. Under the Federal Gun Control Act, anyone convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor is prohibited from buying or possessing guns. Licensed dealers, such as the one the shooter bought his gun from, rely on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System to determine whether a potential customer has a record that prohibits them from buying.
A Department of Defense investigation launched after the shooting uncovered that the Air Force failed to report the shooter’s criminal record to the FBI on six separate occasions.
The Air Force did not respond to a request for comment.