DOJ appeal in Texas mass shooting case pleases NRA and puzzles gun control advocates
It’s been more than five years since a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killed 25 people, including a pregnant woman, and injured 22 others. Officials put the total death toll at 26.
A district court ruled in 2021 that the government was 60% responsible for the massacre after shooter Devin Kelley, who was discharged from the Air Force after a felony conviction, was not entered into a national database that would have prevented him from buy a gun . A judge said the government also owed the victims $230 million in restitution.
But in court documents filed this week, the Justice Department declined to pay damages and denied that they were primarily responsible for the shooting — a move that gun control advocates say not only hurts the victims and their families, but it’s also a step back for the Biden administration’s own stance on gun control policy.
“We think the government needs to hold itself accountable for its failures in this case, and I think they need to give these families the modicum of justice they deserve,” said Erin Davis, senior counsel at Brady, an organization of arms control defense. NPR.
DOJ spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in a statement that the Justice Department remains “open to resolving the plaintiffs’ claims through settlement and will continue our efforts to do so,” and said DOJ is continuing to seek a “resolution out of court. .”
It’s still possible that the DOJ may decide the case, though it has already filed an appeal, but it’s not yet clear what next steps the department will take. Meanwhile, many who work in the gun control advocacy space say the decision politically clouds the Biden administration’s own position on the importance of background checks.
Robert Cottrol, a law professor at George Washington University, said the government’s default position is to defend against monetary claims. But he acknowledged that the argument the DOJ is making works against the administration politically.
“I think that could make the administration’s position politically more difficult,” Cottrol said.
Plaintiff’s attorney says Biden’s DOJ is playing into the NRA’s hands
Jamal Alsaffar, the attorney representing the Sutherland Springs victims and their families, said that by appealing the district judge’s decision, the DOJ is playing into the hands of the National Rifle Association.
“If the DOJ wins, we have significantly weakened the ability to enforce background check laws,” Alsaffar said.
The NRA’s legislative arm released a statement saying the lawsuit “forced the government to admit inconvenient truths about gun control restrictions.”
The NRA said it was “significant” that the Justice Department has argued that a background check on the shooter might not have stopped the shooting, and argued that the Air Force could not have known the shooter had the potential to commit such a crime.
“Both of these admissions essentially negate any further claims by the Biden administration that firearms background checks have any essential role to play in public safety,” the NRA wrote.
“Biden’s DD is walking right into the NRA’s trap,” Alsaffar said. “Why the DOJ wants to undermine the most important element of the Biden administration’s gun safety policy is beyond me.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean Pierre, asked about the DOJ’s decision to appeal Friday, referred questions to the Justice Department. But she added that Biden “remains committed to making sure that we address an issue that affects families across the country, communities across the country, which is gun violence.”
President Biden has not even commented on the case, but has spoken several times about what he sees as the effectiveness of background checks. Early last year, for example, he said they help keep “people who aren’t allowed to own guns from getting a gun in the first place.” And last summer he signed a bipartisan bill that would expand background checks.
Last February, at a gun violence prevention task force meeting in New York, Biden also commented on holding the gun lobby and gun manufacturers accountable.
“They need to be held accountable for the things they do that are irresponsible,” Biden said.
The government has settled and paid the victims of two other mass shootings
Sutherland Springs is not the first time the government has been held responsible for a mass shooting incident. In fact, during the Sutherland Springs litigation, the government paid victims of the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., and the 2015 shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C.
The DOJ said in the appeal they filed that in the Sutherland Springs case, “The United States does not unequivocally seek to justify the Air Force’s failure to submit Kelley’s fingerprints and conviction record for inclusion in NICS databases “.
But they dispute the district judge’s decision that found the government mostly responsible for the attack.
“The United States is not responsible for Kelley’s actions and certainly no more responsible for those actions than the killer himself,” the DOJ said, adding that the United States is not “legally responsible” for the damages caused by the shooting.
But given past settlements with victims and families from Parkland and Charleston, Alsaffar says his clients in Sutherland Springs should also get what they’re owed.
“It makes no sense on the law and the facts that the DOJ would deal fairly with the families of Parkland and the families of the South Carolina church massacre, nor would it come close to the same justice … in our case,” Alsaffar said.
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