WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has reached a $144.5 million settlement with the families of 26 people killed in a 2017 mass shooting at a church in Texas after an acrimonious legal battle in which the government claimed it was not liable for its failure to update the national firearms background check system.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has signed off on the deal, which lawyers in the Justice Department’s civil division negotiated with lawyers representing the families of victims and survivors who had gathered for Sunday worship at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, outside San Antonio.
The settlement is among the largest of its kind, exceeding previous ones the department reached over mass shootings that stemmed from the government’s failure to take steps to prevent mass shootings by sharing intelligence and other information that might have been used to stop them. In recent years, the department paid out $127.5 million to the victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, and $88 million to the families of those killed or injured in the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
In February 2022, Judge Xavier Rodriguez of the Federal District Court in San Antonio found that Air Force officials had failed to submit crucial records that would have prevented the suspect in the Sutherland Springs shooting from obtaining from a licensed gun dealer the semiautomatic rifle that he used in the attack. Those documents included a domestic violence conviction by a military court.
But months of negotiations failed to end in a deal. Late last year, after an attempt at mediation with lawyers for the families of those killed and injured in the shooting, the government withdrew from negotiations and appealed the decision. That angered the families, their lawyers and gun control groups, which viewed the case as a crucial test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing the government’s responsibility to keep weapons out of the hands of mass shooters.
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In January, the Justice Department took the extraordinary step of appealing Judge Rodriguez’s $230 million award to the families. At the time, Brian M. Boynton, the head of the civil division, acknowledged that there was “no dispute that U.S. Air Force personnel failed to transmit to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System” critical information about the killer, Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, who opened fire at First Baptist Church.
“The Sutherland Springs families are heroes,” Jamal K. Alsaffar, the lead lawyer for the families, said on Wednesday. “They have gone through so much pain and loss in the most horrific way. But despite that, these families fought for justice, endured and won two trials against the federal government.”
These settlements will resolve claims by more than 75 plaintiffs, according to a department spokeswoman. The settlement still needs the approval of the judge, but both sides expect he will sign off.
“No words or amount of money can diminish the immense tragedy of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs,” said the associate attorney general, Vanita Gupta, who oversees the civil division. “Today’s announcement brings the litigation to a close, ending a painful chapter for the victims of this unthinkable crime.”
Mr. Kelley, who died in the aftermath of the attack, served at an Air Force base in New Mexico until he was court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child. He was sentenced to 12 months’ confinement and received a “bad conduct” discharge, which should have prevented him from buying firearms or ammunition under federal law.
The Air Force later acknowledged that officials had failed to enter the conviction into the federal database used to perform criminal background checks.
Judge Rodriguez ordered the Air Force to pay damages to the victims for what he described as their “pain and suffering, mental anguish, disfigurement, impairment and loss of companionship.”
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