Air Force Is Most to Blame for 2017 Church Shooting, Judge Rules

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U.S.|Air Force Is Most to Blame for 2017 Church Shooting, Judge Rules

The ruling in the case, which was brought by the families of the victims, found that the Air Force was “60 percent responsible” for the massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

A memorial to the 26 victims of the 2017 shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.
Credit...Scott Olson/Getty Images

July 7, 2021, 4:33 p.m. ET

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that the U.S. Air Force was mostly responsible for a 2017 Texas church shooting because the Air Force had failed to report the gunman’s criminal history, which could have blocked him from buying the rifle he used to kill 26 people.

In his ruling, Judge Xavier Rodriguez of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas wrote that the Air Force was “60 percent responsible” for the massacre that unfolded on Nov. 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

The government’s failure “proximately caused the deaths and injuries of plaintiffs,” the judge wrote.

“Had the government done its job,” the judge wrote, it is more likely than not that the gunman, Devin P. Kelley, “would have been deterred from carrying out the church shooting.”

The ruling followed a lawsuit against the federal government brought by the families of the victims. Judge Rodriguez ordered both parties to present a plan to the court within 15 days for bringing the individual damages cases to trial.

Nearly four years ago, Mr. Kelley, who had served on an Air Force base in New Mexico, walked into a Sunday service at a small Baptist church and fired at the parishioners worshiping in the pews. The victims ranged in age from 5 to 72, and included a pregnant woman and the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter.

A neighbor twice shot Mr. Kelley, who was clad in all black with a mask and a ballistic vest, as he exited the church. Mr. Kelley jumped in his car and led the neighbor and another man in a car chase. The gunman crashed his car and was found dead behind the wheel, where officials said he had shot himself in the head.

After the mass shooting, the Air Force acknowledged its error, saying in a statement that it should have entered Mr. Kelley’s conviction for domestic violence into a federal database used to conduct background checks on people buying guns.

Under federal law, Mr. Kelley should not have been allowed to buy the military-style rifle or three other guns he owned. He bought the weapons after he was convicted in 2012 of domestic assault against his wife and toddler stepson. In his 2012 court-martial, Mr. Kelley admitted that he had repeatedly hit the child’s head with his hands, cracking his skull.

“Kelley’s domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Criminal Information Center database by the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations,” the Air Force said in a statement after the shooting.

The Air Force also said after the shooting that it was looking into whether other convictions had been improperly left unreported to the federal database for firearms background checks.

The Air Force declined to comment on Wednesday.

Mr. Kelley received a “bad conduct” discharge from the Air Force in 2014 after almost five years of service.

The Supreme Court of Texas ruled last month that the store that sold the rifle to Mr. Kelley could not be sued for its role in the shooting. Survivors and families of the victims had sued the chain Academy Sports + Outdoors, but the court dismissed the lawsuits because the background check database didn’t alert the store to Mr. Kelley’s record.


Credit...Texas Department of Public Safety, via Associated Press

Sheelagh McNeill contributed reporting.

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