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Sutherland Springs: Texas church attack victims offered $144m settlement

The US justice department has reached a tentative $144.5m (£116m) deal with victims and relatives of those killed in a 2017 mass shooting in Texas.

The massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs left 26 dead.

The settlement marks the end of a legal battle after victims sued the US Air Force for not reporting the gunman’s history of violence to the FBI.

That history should have prevented the shooter, a former airman, from legally purchasing the guns used in the attack.

Victims of the shooting ranged from five to 72 years old.

Sutherland Springs resident Stephen Willeford told the BBC his small, rural community remains devastated by the tragedy, five years on.

“We will always miss those that we lost that day,” he said. Mr Willeford confronted the attacker, grabbing his own rifle and running barefoot from his house to the church when he heard gunfire.

“When you hear the shots, you can’t take time to put shoes on when you know each shot may cost someone their life,” he said.

Mr Willeford exchanged fire with the gunman, who then escaped in a truck from the scene. The suspect died by suicide later that day.

In July 2021, US District Judge Xavier Rodriguez found that Air Force officials had failed to submit key documents – including a 2012 conviction for domestic assault – about the gunman, to the national firearms background check system.

That conviction should have barred the suspect from buying the semiautomatic rifle used in the attack from a licenced gun dealer.

The omission, Judge Rodriguez ruled, rendered the military branch 60% responsible for the attack.

The judge said in 2021 that if the government had done its job and inputted the suspect’s history into the database, “it is more likely than not” that he would have been deterred from carrying out the church shooting.

The judge later ordered the government to pay more than $230m in damages.

But in January of this year, the justice department appealed, arguing that it should not be held more culpable than the shooter.

Several prominent gun-control advocacy groups lobbied the Biden administration, asking the justice department to drop its appeal.

“The Sutherland Springs families are heroes,” Jamal Alsaffar, a lawyer for the victims’ families said on Wednesday. “They have gone through so much pain and loss in the most horrific way. But despite that, these families fought for justice, endured and won two trials against the federal government.”

The settlement, described as an “agreement in principle” by the US government, still needs the approval of the judge, who is expected to agree. It will resolve claims by more than 75 plaintiffs, the justice department said.

“Today’s announcement brings the litigation to a close, ending a painful chapter for the victims of this unthinkable crime,” said associate attorney general Vanita Gupta in a statement.

Source: BBC