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Sutherland Springs victims say they've reached $144.5M settlement with DOJ

The "tentative agreement," which is not fully settled yet, would end years of legal battle for more than 80 survivors and victims' relatives.

WASHINGTON — The victims of the 2017 mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which 26 were killed, have reached a "tentative agreement" with the Justice Department to settle a case against the federal government for $144.5 million.

If the settlement is finalized, it is likely to end a yearslong legal battle over a federal judge's ruling that the U.S. government bears some responsibility for the attack because it failed to submit the shooter's criminal history into a database that would have prevented him from purchasing firearms.

In a statement Wednesday morning, the Justice Department said it had reached “an agreement in principle” that “would resolve the pending appeals." The agreement won't be finalized, it said, until the plaintiffs secure necessary court approvals. The court, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in this instance, is required to "approve some aspects of the settlement."

Kenneth and Irene Hernandez pay their respects as they visit a makeshift memorial with crosses placed near the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A man opened fire inside the church in the small South Texas community on Sunday, killing and wounding many. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Kenneth and Irene Hernandez pay their respects on Nov. 6, 2017, at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a mass shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas.Eric Gay / AP file

“No words or amount of money can diminish the immense tragedy of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. “Today’s announcement brings the litigation to a close, ending a painful chapter for the victims of this unthinkable crime.”

Jamal Alsaffar, the lead trial attorney for the victims, called the Sutherland Springs families heroes and said "the country owes them a debt of gratitude" for pursuing their lawsuit, even as it forced them to relive the traumatic shooting.

The legal episode is not yet over for the families, however, despite the "pain and loss" they have endured, he said.

In this Nov. 10, 2017, file photo, family and friends gather around a makeshift memorial for the victims of the First Baptist Church shooting at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The machete attack on a rabbi's home in Monsey, New York, during Hanukkah and the shooting of worshippers at a Texas church are refocusing attention on how vulnerable worshippers are during religious services. FBI hate crime statistics show there is reason for concern.
Family and friends gather on Nov. 10, 2017, around a makeshift memorial for the victims of the First Baptist Church shooting.Eric Gay / AP file

"These families fought for justice, endured and won two trials against the federal government and made this country safer as a result. But the settlement is not final," Alsaffar said. "Attorney General Garland’s office still must approve it, and we urge his Justice Department to act quickly to bring some closure to these families. It’s the least they deserve."

In July 2021, a judge found the government partly liable for the shooting for failing to provide records that could have kept Devin Kelley, a former Air Force service member, from acquiring the weapons he used in the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

The U.S. government was ordered to pay the more than 80 survivors and victims’ relatives $230 million; the Justice Department appealed the ruling. Lawyers for the government argued in court that even if the Air Force — which did not report Kelley's 2012 arrest and court-martial for domestic violence to the FBI — had followed the law, he would have found another way to acquire a gun to commit the same act, according to court transcripts.

Victims of the shooting said this year that the Justice Department's arguments had left them frustrated, confused and angry. Many found that the agency's arguments seemed to undermine the background check system, which was a cornerstone of President Joe Biden's gun policy priorities.

Survivors and gun safety advocates said they feared that if the Justice Department won the case it could damage gun safety laws.

“If I had an opportunity to meet President Biden, I would ask him, ‘Why? Why are you doing all this [gun reform] and yet you’re fighting it over here?’” said Juan “Gunny” Macias, who was shot numerous times in the attack.

In its statement, the Justice Department emphasized that the background check system "plays a critical role in combatting gun violence" and that the federal government "is always striving to improve the functioning of that system."