Last Monday, a federal court ordered the US Air Force (USAF) to pay more than $230 million to the victims’ families and survivors of the 2017 Sutherland Springs shooting. The USAF failed to report the gunman’s earlier conviction and issues while serving in the Air Force, a report that could have stopped him from purchasing a weapon, thus preventing the shooting.
The gunman in question was Devin Patrick Kelley, who had briefly escaped from a mental health facility in New Mexico in 2012 and was named a suspect in a 2013 sexual assault charge. During the middle of a Sunday church service at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Kelley walked in and opened fire with his Ruger AR-556 on innocent civilians. The brutal rampage would claim the lives of 26 people, one of which was pregnant with a baby and eight of which were children.
Records presented at court showed that there had been at least three separate opportunities where the authorities and the Air Force could have prevented Kelley from obtaining a gun. One of which was through timely reporting of his court-martial documents to the National Criminal Information Center Database.
The killer was once part of the US Air Force, serving within its logistical readiness department at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 2010 before the 2017 Sutherland Springs shooting. Reports and documents showed that he pleaded guilty to a court-martial for assault on his family, namely his wife and son. He fractured his son’s skull in a fit of rage and was sentenced to a year of confinement and a demotion in rank. His wife would file for divorce soon after the confinement.
The local sheriffs would later investigate him for the 2013 rape case; however, it was believed that Kelley had left Texas for Colorado, leading the case to be reclassified as “inactive.”
He would later remarry in 2014 to a woman named Danielle Shields, who attended the First Baptist Church along with her mother. After an argument between Kelley and Shield’s mother, Kelley would conduct the shooting in the church, killing Shield’s mother, Lula White, under the heavy fire. It was reported that Kelley had fired at least 450 rounds to the innocent churchgoers with his AR-556 semi-automatic rifle. Kelly would be himself shot by Stephen Wilford who lived near the church and hearing the gunfire, retrieved his AR platform rifle and engaged him at close range. Kelly then fled by car with Wilford and another civilian giving chase in their vehicle. In fleeing Kelly would crash his vehicle and then take his own life as police arrived on the scene.
In line with the facts presented, US District Judge Xavier Rodriguez ruled that the Air Force was 60% responsible for what had happened at the First Baptist Church shootings, the worst mass shooting in Texas history. Had the court-martial and his string of assault and domestic abuse cases been put into the FBI’s database, it would be highly possible that it would have prevented him from obtaining a licensed firearm from licensed firearms dealers.
“The trial conclusively established that no other individual — not even Kelley’s 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,” said the judge. He also claimed that it was the government’s job to fix the logistical issues of putting Kelley’s violent history into the system.
In response, the Air Force has admitted its fault and role with the shooting, with Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek stating, “The service will also conduct a comprehensive review of Air Force databases to ensure records in other cases have been reported correctly.”
Initially, the survivors and the relatives of the victims of those killed during the Sutherland Springs shooting had asked for $418 million; however, the US Justice Department would propose $31.8 million instead, basing its numbers on the evidence presented in court. Many plaintiffs’ lawyers saw this proposed payment plan as unjust, unfair, and outright ridiculous.
“These families are the heroes here. While no amount can bring back the many lives lost or destroyed at the hands of the government’s negligence, their bravery in obtaining this verdict will make this country safer by helping ensure that this type of governmental failure does not happen in our country again,” claimed one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Jamal Alsaffar.