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Trump administration: Academy Sports liable for selling gun to Sutherland Springs shooter

A man walks past the front of the First Baptist Church a day after a gunman opened fire on a Sunday service and killed at least 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 6, 2017. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

The federal government says a Texas-based sporting goods retailer is responsible in part for the 2017 mass shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs.

Several local families are suing the U.S. Department of Justice, claiming the federal government’s negligence allowed shooter Devin P. Kelley to purchase the firearm used in the massacre. Now, Trump administration lawyers are trying to shift some of the attention onto Academy Sports + Outdoors, writing in a motion filed Tuesday that the retailer is liable for the massacre because the shooter purchased his gun and high-capacity magazine at one of its stores.

Kelley showed a Colorado license but carried out the purchase in Texas. High-capacity magazines are illegal in Colorado.

“The Federal Gun Control Act required Academy to comply with the laws of both Texas, the seller’s state, and Colorado, the buyer’s apparent state of residence,” Paul David Stern, a Justice Department attorney. “Academy was not permitted to sell Kelley the Model 8500 Ruger AR-556 under federal law because sale of that rifle would have been illegal in Colorado.”

Stern wrote the government also wants Kelley, who died near the scene, and any “unknown persons who may have conspired” with him to be named as “responsible third parties” in addition to Academy.

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The sporting goods chain, which is headquartered in Katy, declined to comment. Earlier this year, a federal judge said the shooting victims could sue the company. That case is ongoing. Academy has denied it broke federal law, arguing the statute applies only to the sale of firearms themselves and not magazines as well.

An attorney for the families said if the federal government wants Academy to share the blame for the shooting, it must also now investigate the claims it’s made.

“What is most concerning about this development is that the U.S. Government is and has been aware of systematic and ongoing illegal gun sales by Academy Sports across their hundreds of locations, and not done anything to stop this admitted violation of the law,” Jamal Alsaffar told The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday. “We call upon the government to immediately initiate an investigation to end Academy’s countrywide policy of selling high-capacity assault rifles to residents of states that have banned them.”

Kelley, a veteran, had a history of domestic abuse and other violent behavior that the U.S. Air Force admitted it failed to report to a federal criminal database, allowing him to purchase his weapons without raising red flags. In a December report, the Air Force said it failed on six occasions to report information that would have prevented Kelley from legally purchasing a gun.

Within a month of the shooting, several Sutherland Springs families targeted the government, saying its negligence helped Kelley carry out the shooting. They sued the next year. The government argues it should not be liable for these mistakes, arguing that its employees are immune to legal action of this kind.

The small rural community of Sutherland Springs will mark two years since the shooting on Nov. 5. More than two dozen people were killed in the attack, the worst in modern Texas history, including a pregnant woman, several children and a small baby.

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© 2019 The Dallas Morning News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.