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A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that the U.S. Air Force is largely responsible for a 2017 mass shooting at a Texas church that killed 26 because it failed to report the shooter’s criminal history to the FBI.
The decision concludes that the Air Force is 60% responsible for the shooting, noting that the military branch’s failure to submit Devin Patrick Kelley’s domestic violence charges in a federal database allowed him to purchase firearms that he should have been barred from owning.
Kelley fired on worshipers at the First Baptist Church in the town of Sutherland Springs in November 2017, one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent history.
“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,” U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez wrote in the court ruling.
“For these reasons, the Government bears significant responsibility for the Plaintiffs’ harm.”
An Air Force spokesperson did not immediately return CNBC’s request for comment.
Rodriquez noted in the court ruling that no other individual, including Kelley’s parents or partners, knew as much as the government did about his violent history and the violence he was capable of.
The decision follows a lawsuit brought by the families of the victims against the government. Rodriguez also ordered a later trial within 15 days to assess monetary damages owed to survivors and victims’ families.
Kelley served at an Air Force base in New Mexico for nearly five years, according to court records. He was court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his wife and stepson and was subject to a bad conduct discharge and one year of confinement.
Despite Kelley’s violent history, he was able to pass mandatory background checks to purchase four different firearms from licensed firearm dealers after he was discharged. Among them was an AR-556 rifle that he used in the church shooting, according to the court ruling.
After the shooting, the Air Force publicly admitted that it could have prevented Kelley from buying firearms, according to the Associated Press.
Kelley would not have passed background checks to purchase the firearms if his convictions were entered into the FBI database, the court ruling said. Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, people convicted of a misdemeanor crime involving domestic violence are prohibited from owning firearms.
“USAF agents and leadership had an obligation—and multiple opportunities—to ensure that Kelley’s fingerprints and criminal history were submitted to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (“CJIS”) Division for inclusion in its databases,” Rodriguez said in the court ruling.
The Texas Supreme Court last month ruled that the store that sold the rifle used in the shooting to Kelley could not be sued. Families of the victims and survivors had filed a lawsuit against Academy Sports + Outdoors, but the court dismissed it because the background check conducted by the store did not show Kelley’s charges.
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