US District Judge Xavier Rodriguez for the Western District of Texas concluded the Air Force failed to exercise reasonable care when it didn’t submit the shooter’s criminal history to the FBI’s background check system, which increased the risk of physical harm to the general public.
“Moreover, the evidence shows that — had the Government done its job and properly reported Kelley’s information into the background check system — it is more likely than not that Kelley would have been deterred from carrying out the Church shooting,” the ruling stated. “For these reasons, the Government bears significant responsibility for the Plaintiffs’ harm.”
The court found the government 60% responsible for the harm that happened in the shooting and “jointly and severally liable for the damages that may be awarded.” The ruling was signed on Tuesday and comes after a suit brought by survivors of the shooting and relatives of those killed or injured.
The judge’s order states that no other individual — not even the shooter’s parents or partners — knew as much as the government did about his violent history and the violence he was capable of committing. After the rampage, the shooter died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The US Air Force Public Affairs office declined to comment to CNN on Wednesday, citing the ongoing case.
On November 5, 2017, the gunman killed 26 people and wounded 22 others at the First Baptist Church in the small community of Sutherland Springs.
The shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, was a former member of the US Air Force. He was charged in military court in 2012 on suspicion of assaulting his spouse and their child. Kelley received a bad conduct discharge, confinement for 12 months, and was demoted to E-1, or airman basic.
But despite his history of domestic abuse and questionable behavior involving firearms, Kelley was able to purchase the Ruger AR-556 rifle he allegedly used in the shooting from a store in San Antonio, Texas in April 2016, a law enforcement official previously told CNN.
The Air Force had acknowledged in 2017 that it did not relay the killer’s court martial conviction for domestic assault to civilian law enforcement that could have prevented him purchasing the firearms used in the shooting.
The failure to relay that information prevented the entry of his conviction into the federal database that must be checked before someone is able to purchase a firearm. Had his information been in the database at the National Criminal Information Center, it should have prevented gun sales to Kelley. Federal law prohibits people convicted of a misdemeanor crime involving domestic violence from owning firearms.
Stephen Willeford, the hero who chased off the Sutherland Springs church shooter, said the judge made the right decision.
“Rock and roll. This is what should have happened all along,” he told CNN when reached by phone Wednesday morning. “The Air Force is definitely at fault for not entering that into the NICS system. I’ve been saying that all along.”
Willeford was not a part of the civil lawsuit, but he said the decision will help the survivors who were gravely injured and still suffering from medical issues.
“It feels like vindication,” he said. “Our government needs to take responsible when it screws up.”
Willeford expressed concern that the military may not have entered critical background information about other people into the system. “This could potentially happen again.”
In the months after the shooting, the US Department of Defense scrambled to ensure all of its branches have properly updated the FBI’s system to track personnel kicked out of the military who are barred from owning firearms.