AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Justice Department announced Wednesday a tentative $144 million settlement with families and victims of a 2017 mass shooting at a Texas church that was carried out by a former U.S. airman who was able to purchase firearms despite a criminal history.
More than two dozen people were killed when Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire during a Sunday service at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. Authorities put the official death toll at 26 because one of the 25 people killed was pregnant in what remains the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history.
Kelley had served nearly five years in the Air Force before being discharged in 2014 for bad conduct, after he was convicted of assaulting a former wife and stepson, cracking the child’s skull. The Air Force has publicly acknowledged that the felony conviction for domestic violence — had it been put into the FBI database — could have prevented Kelley from buying guns from licensed firearms dealer.
U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez had previously ruled that the Air Force was “60% liable” for the attack because it failed to submit Kelley’s assault conviction during his time in the Air Force to a national database. He ruled that Kelley was at fault for the rest.
The Justice Department said the settlement is still subject to court approvals.
“No words or amount of money can diminish the immense tragedy of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs,” said Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general for the Justice Department, in a statement. “Today’s announcement brings the litigation to a close, ending a painful chapter for the victims of this unthinkable crime.”
Jamal Alsaffar, a Texas attorney who has represented the Sutherland Springs victims in the lawsuit, noted that the settlement was not yet final and said the families have been fighting for justice.
“The Sutherland Springs families are heroes,” Alsaffar said in a statement. “The country owes them a debt of gratitude. They have gone through so much pain and loss in the most horrific way.”
The settlement would end a long-running lawsuit that was filed in 2018. When lawsuits are filed against federal agencies or programs, they are defended by attorneys with the Justice Department, which has separate divisions for criminal prosecutions and other responsibilities.
The settlement is less than the $230 million that Rodriguez had ordered the government to pay families and the victims last year, but the Justice Department appealed that ruling.
Rodriguez said in 2021 that had the government done its job and entered Kelley’s history into the database, “it is more likely than not that Kelley would have been deterred from carrying out the Church shooting.”
Kelley was able to purchase four firearms after being discharged in 2014, three of which he carried into the church. After the shooting, the Air Force was blamed for not reporting his record to the FBI. The conviction would have been a red flag in the mandatory background check when Kelley tried to purchase a gun.
Kelley died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was shot and chased by two men who heard the gunfire at the church.