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Sutherland Springs Trial Against Air Force Focuses On Shooter’s Access To Guns

Hearings are ongoing in the lawsuit dozens of families of the victims of the 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting brought against the government. Attorneys for the families argue the government is culpable in the mass shooting that left 26 dead.

Families began suing the government in late 2017 after the Air Force admitted it failed to send information to the FBI about Devin Kelly, the shooter — specifically about his domestic violence conviction in 2012, during time in the Air Force service.

The plaintiffs argue that if the Air Force had sent the information, which is a legal obligation, Kelley would have been placed in a national FBI database. Federal Firearm Licensed (FFL) dealers use the database to run background checks prior to selling firearms.

Kelly’s felony conviction then would have barred him from buying any firearms from these dealers. He bought several guns from FFL dealers, including the assault-style rifle he used in the 2017 massacre.

The government’s argument has centered around the claim that Kelley would have acquired a firearm to commit the mass shooting by other means, even if the Air Force had sent his felony conviction information to the FBI. The government has pointed to other methods Kelley could have used, such as buying from private gun dealers — who are not required to run background checks on buyers — or taking his father’s firearms. The government also highlighted Kelley’s willingness to lie on multiple background checks as further evidence of his determination to acquire firearms.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have based their argument over what did occur, rather than what the government says could have occurred, pointing to the fact that the gun Kelley used in the mass shooting was purchased at an FFL dealer, and Kelley passed a background check to get it. They say it was the government’s negligence that enabled Kelley to commit the shooting.

Over the course of the trial, numerous witnesses have testified, including Danielle Smith, Kelley’s former wife, Smith’s mothers, Kelley’s parents, a Texas Ranger who worked on the 2017 case and several other experts.

The trial highlighted threats Kelley made toward a supervisor in the Air Force, who then told colleagues to watch out for Kelley because he was the type of person “to come shoot us,” according to testimony. In 2012, the Air Force court-martialed Kelley for domestic violence against his then-wife and young stepson, and he was sentenced to a year in confinement. He then received a bad conduct discharge.

Following testimony on Monday, an attorney from the government made a motion to dismiss the case. He argued the government was immune from lawsuits and that the government could not have foreseen Kelley would commit large-scale violence.

Judge Xavier Rodriguez denied the motion, citing his previous ruling that the government was not immune from lawsuits. Rodriguez also rejected the foreseeability claim and said the government was aware of Kelley’s potential to commit large-scale violence and had even banned him from returning to his former Air Force base. Rodriguez also said it was “disappointing” that the government argued that it protected itself from Kelley but did not protect the general public.

The trial is expected to continue into at least next week, and then Rodriguez will issue his ruling on the question of wrongdoing several weeks later. If he finds the government liable, the trial will move to a second stage to determine the damages.

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Josh Peck