(TEXAS TRIBUNE) – The man who shot dead 26 at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the deadliest mass shooting on record in Texas shouldn’t have been able to buy the assault-style weapon he used, but the store that sold it cannot be prosecuted because a federal database did not report her past assault conviction, the Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday.
In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest civilian court dismissed several lawsuits against Academy Sports + Outdoors brought by survivors and families of victims of the 2017 mass shooting.
In four lawsuits, filed in Bexar County, victims and family members accused the retailer of negligence for selling a Model 8500 Ruger AR-556, fitted with a 30-round magazine, from its store in San Antonio to Devin Kelley, 26, a former aviator who served a year of detention following an assault conviction in 2012. He was released from the US Air Force in 2014 with a discharge for misconduct . Kelley lived in Comal County, about 50 miles from San Antonio.
Kelley opened fire during Sunday morning services at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, killing 25 people, including a pregnant woman, and injuring 20 others. According to The Associated Press, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot.
Her motive was not entirely clear, however, authorities said the shooting may have been due to a family dispute and her mother-in-law was a member of the First Baptist Church.
In response to the lawsuits, the Academy claimed it was protected by the federal Law on the Protection of the Legal Trade in Arms Act, enacted in 2005, which protects gun dealers and manufacturers from prosecution when third party commits a felony using a legally purchased weapon.
The Academy had asked State District Judge Karen H. Pozza to dismiss the lawsuits, but Pozza ruled against the company.
In its ruling signed by Judge Debra Lehrmann, the High Court granted the retailer a rare mandamus warrant and ordered the trial court to grant the company’s summary judgment motion.
“Although federal law prohibited Kelley from purchasing a firearm at the time of sale – in part based on his 2012 court martial conviction for assaulting his wife and stepson and his dishonorable dismissal of the US Air Force – this disqualifying information was not in the system, which authorized the Academy to “proceed” with the sale, “the court said.
Lawyers representing the academy said in a statement that the court had made a “historic” decision.
“Our thoughts and prayers continue for the victims of this tragedy,” the lawyers said. “We believe that the Supreme Court opinion as a whole applied the law with care and thoughtfulness in this situation.”
There are nine other cases against the Academy resulting from the shooting that are pending, according to the state court’s opinion. A separate lawsuit has been filed against the US government in federal court accusing the US Air Force of “failing to collect, process and report the required information,” according to court records. No decision has yet been rendered in this case.
A few days after the shooting, the Republican US senator. John cornyn addressed the US Senate, noting the need for legislation to strengthen the national system of instant criminal background checks. He then introduced the “Fix NICS” law, which was then enacted and requires government agencies to create plans for registration submissions and penalizes agencies that do not comply.
Stanley Bernstein, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the case, said as a group that the plaintiffs were “disappointed” by the court’s decision.
“There were two chances of stopping Kelley: The Academy failed the first time. The federal government failed the second, ”said Bernstein.
He also criticized the way the court reached its decision, saying his argument was contrary to what federal officials have testified in federal court regarding the legality of the sale of the gun.
The Sutherland Springs shooting, along with a series of other mass shootings that followed, sparked heated partisan debates over the legislative measures needed to tackle gun control and safety. More than a year after the shooting, in 2019, the Texas legislature passed a law allowing licensed gun owners to carry handguns in places of worship. However, places of worship are permitted to prohibit visitors from carrying handguns on the premises as long as they provide oral or written notice.
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