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Air Force mostly responsible for church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Tex., judge says

A memorial for the more than two dozen victims killed Nov. 5, 2017, at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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The Air Force was mostly responsible for the 2017 massacre at a Sutherland Springs, Tex., church because it failed to submit records to federal law enforcement that could have prevented the attacker from buying guns, a judge determined this week.

The gunman, former airman Devin Kelley, was convicted of domestic assault years before he opened fire during Sunday morning services, killing more than two dozen people. That military conviction would have prevented him from passing the background check for buying guns, but the Air Force never submitted his criminal record or fingerprints to the FBI despite having “an obligation — and multiple opportunities” to do so, according to U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez.

“[T]he 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,” Rodriguez wrote in a ruling signed Tuesday and filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Kelley joined the Air Force in 2010 and served for a time in New Mexico. He was given a bad-conduct discharge in 2014 after being convicted of attacking his wife and stepson and sentenced to 12 months of confinement.

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Authorities said Kelley massacred worshipers on Nov. 5, 2017, inside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, a small community near San Antonio, before fleeing and shooting himself. He was 26. Those killed at the church included several children and a pregnant woman.

Rodriguez’s 99-page ruling came in response to lawsuits victims’ relatives and survivors of the attack had brought against the federal government. Rodriguez wrote that government inaction “proximately caused the deaths and injuries” at the church that day. In breaking down liability, Rodriguez apportioned 60 percent to parts of the Air Force and the remaining 40 percent to the gunman.

This ruling followed a bench trial held in April focusing on “disputed issues of fact,” Rodriguez wrote, with another set to follow focusing on damages in the case. Rodriguez wrote in his order that the parties involved were given 15 days to submit a plan to bring individual cases to trial.

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The Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Attorneys for the victims’ relatives and survivors praised the judge’s ruling and the families who brought the case.

Jamal Alsaffar, one of their lead attorneys, said in a statement: “If it wasn’t for these brave families, the Government would never have taken or faced responsibility for their negligence.”

This ruling was the latest official acknowledgment of errors that preceded the 2017 attack. Not long after the shooting, the Air Force said it had failed to submit information on the gunman’s domestic violence conviction to the background check system. The following year, the Pentagon inspector general released a report saying “there was no valid reason” for the Air Force’s failures.

The report found four missed opportunities to submit his fingerprints, and two missed chances to submit a report on his domestic violence conviction. The report laid out context for these missteps but said it did not “excuse the failures,” which “had drastic consequences and should not have occurred.”

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Other mass killings have been followed by reviews, investigations and revelations of failures, missteps and red flags that gained newfound significance in the wake of bloodshed and tragedy.

Researchers have found that rather than erupting out of the blue, attackers who open fire in public places have frequently alarmed those around them.

The gunman who killed eight people at a FedEx facility earlier this year had a gun seized by authorities last year amid concerns about his mental health, authorities said. In 2017, relatives had long worried about the mental state of a man who killed five people in Northern California and tried to storm an elementary school.

In other cases, officials acknowledged lapses and mistakes. The man convicted of murdering nine people inside a Charleston, S.C., church was able to buy his gun because of a what the FBI described as a breakdown in the background check system. The FBI said in 2018 it failed to act on a tip about the alleged gunman who killed 17 people inside a Parkland, Fla., high school before that attack, while local law enforcement officials had also received calls and warnings about him beforehand.

In Sutherland Springs, the federal government had argued in court papers that the gunman alone was responsible for the shooting and said the shooting “was not foreseeable to the Air Force.”

But Rodriguez, the judge, dismissed these arguments, writing that the bench 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.”