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U.S. Air Force Held Partly Liable for 2017 Texas Mass Shooting

A U.S. district judge in San Antonio ruled that the U.S. Air Force is significantly responsible for a shooting perpetrated by a former serviceman at a Texas church that left more than two dozen people dead in 2017.  

Judge Xavier Rodriguez found that the service failed to submit the shooter’s violent criminal history into the FBI database. Rodriguez determined that if the records about Devin Patrick Kelley's military conviction had been submitted to federal law enforcement, Kelley would not have passed the background check for buying guns. In fact, a Pentagon inspector general’s report in 2018 found that the Air Force failed to submit these records or Kelley's fingerprints on six different occasions, according to The Washington Post 

“The Court finds the United States 60 percent responsible for this harm and jointly and severally liable for the damages that may be awarded,” Rodriguez wrote in the order. The lawsuit was consolidated from various ones filed by the shooting’s victims and relatives against the federal government. 

Specifically, the shooter was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force in 2014, after serving for roughly five years. Kelley’s discharge came after he was convicted of assaulting his wife and stepson, with injuries to the child including a cracked skull, NPR reported 

“The trial conclusively established that no other individual—not even Kelley’s own parents or partners—knew as much as the United States about the violence that Devin Kelley had threatened to commit and was capable of committing,” Rodriguez wrote. The judge determined that the service was negligent in reporting Kelley’s history to federal authorities, even though there were additional reports of his continued threatening behavior against his wife, law enforcement, and colleagues, as well as threats to commit a mass shooting.  

Another trial at a yet-undecided date will determine the extent of damages awarded to the plaintiffs. (Joe Holcombe et al. v. United States of America, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, No. 5:18-cv-00555-XR, 2021)

Kelley killed attendants of a Sunday service at a First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Authorities said he fired at the church, then entered with an AR-556 semi-automatic rifle and two other firearms, and continued firing, ultimately expending more than 450 rounds. The official death toll of the attack—the worst mass shooting in the history of the state—was placed at 26 due to one of the victims being pregnant when she was killed. Another 22 people were injured during the shooting.  

Authorities believe Kelley targeted the church because his wife and her mother attended services there. 

After he left, he was confronted and chased by town residents. While trying to escape, Kelley apparently turned the gun on himself, dying from self-inflicted injuries. 

In June, the Texas Supreme Court decided that a sporting goods chain—Academy Sports and Outdoors—could not be held liable by the victims and families of the shooting, even though Kelley bought the rifle used in the attack from Academy.