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Federal Government Implicates Academy Sports In Sutherland Springs Mass Shooting

The original sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where a mass shooting took place in 2017.
Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio
The original sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where a mass shooting took place in 2017.

A federal judge in San Antonio has named Academy Sports + Outdoors a co-defendant in a lawsuit stemming from the 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting, the deadliest in modern Texas history.

Victims and family members from Sutherland Springs sued the government for damages in 2017 after the U.S. Air Force failed to report shooter Devin Kelley’s criminal and psychiatric history to the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System as required by law. Kelley had a history of felony-level domestic violence offenses which should have disqualified him from purchasing weapons. 

The government has argued that it should not be held liable, citing the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which protects federal employees if they fail to prevent illegal firearm purchases.

On Oct. 15, the government implicated Academy Sports in the mass shooting because the retailer sold Kelley the gun and high-capacity magazine he used during his rampage. 

Attorneys defending the United States filed a motion to designate the sporting goods store as a “responsible third party” in the lawsuit:

“Academy sold Kelley a firearm, specifically a high-capacity Model 8500 Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic AR-15 style rifle, which included a large-capacity 30-round magazine. To purchase this firearm, Kelley presented Academy with a Colorado driver’s license. With respect to the sale of that rifle, the Federal Gun Control Act required Academy to comply with the laws of both Texas, the seller’s state, and Colorado, the buyer’s apparent state of residence. Colorado law restricts the sale of high-capacity magazines, i.e. magazines holding more than fifteen rounds. Therefore, Academy was not permitted to sell Kelley the Model 8500 Ruger AR-556 under federal law because sale of that rifle would have been illegal in Colorado. On November 5, 2017, Kelley used the Model 8500 Ruger AR-556 to commit the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. Academy’s conduct thus contributed to causing the harm for which recovery is sought in this action.”  

Motion for Leave to File De... by Texas Public Radio on Scribd

Gerald Treece, a professor of constitutional law at South Texas College of Law - Houston, said the government is trying to shift attention and blame.

"It's a fancy way of saying, 'We aren't liable. But if we are, they [Academy Sports] ought to pay for it’ ” he said.

U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez of the Western District of Texas accepted the government’s motion on Oct. 17. 

Government Approves Motion ... by Texas Public Radio on Scribd

Academy Sports + Outdoors has previously denied wrongdoing in the case of Kelley and did not respond to requests for comment.

Jamal Alsaffar, PLLC, an attorney for the families, said the government must now investigate its own claims against Academy Sports. 

“What is most concerning about this development is the U.S. Government has been aware of systematic and ongoing illegal gun sales by Academy Sports across their hundreds of locations, and done nothing to stop this admitted violation of the law,” Alsaffar said in a press release.

“We call upon the government to immediately initiate an investigation to end Academy’s nation-wide policy of selling high capacity assault rifles to residents of states that have banned them,” he said.

The Texas-based company operates around 120 stores throughout Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Carson Frame can be reached atCarson@TPR.organd on Twitter at@carson_frame.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Carson graduated from the University of Southern Florida in 2011 with a B.A. in English and International Studies, and earned a Master's degree in Journalism from New York University in 2017. Prior to coming to San Antonio, she worked as a reporter for the WMNF 88.5 FM Evening News in 2008. Since then, she's written for Ms. Magazine, Chronogram, Souciant, and Bedford+Bowery, among others. Carson has also done audio work for the podcasts Death, Sex & Money (WNYC) and Memory Motel (Listening Booth Media).