AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas Supreme Court tossed out four lawsuits by survivors and relatives of those killed in the Sutherland Springs church shooting, ruling that they cannot sue the retailer that sold a rifle used in the rampage that left 26 people dead.
Academy Sports and Outdoors, where the shooter purchased a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle that included a 30-round magazine, had appealed after two lower courts declined to dismiss lawsuits that arose from the 2017 mass shooting.
Agreeing with Academy, the Supreme Court ruled Friday that the petitions were prohibited by the U.S. Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which protects retailers from lawsuits arising from criminal acts by third parties.
The law, passed by Congress in 2005, bars most lawsuits in federal or state courts with only limited exceptions, none of which applied to the Academy sale, Justice Debra Lehrmann wrote in an opinion joined by six justices.
“Academy faces multiple trials in the four underlying suits alone, plus multiple additional lawsuits arising from the Sutherland Springs shooting,” Lehrmann wrote. “Absent … relief, Academy will be obligated to continue defending itself against multiple suits barred by federal law.”
The worst mass shooting in Texas history took place during morning services at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in November 2017, when gunman Devin Kelley systematically shot to death a pregnant woman, an 18-month-old child and other congregants during 11 frantic minutes.
The gunman later died after a confrontation with Stephen Willeford, a firearms instructor who heard the shooting and fired on Kelley outside the church.
The four now-dismissed lawsuits argued Academy improperly sold the rifle to Kelley at a San Antonio location in 2016.
Kelley provided store clerks with a Colorado ID, and the U.S. Gun Control Act required Academy to comply with Colorado gun laws before approving the purchase, the lawsuits said. Colorado, however, prohibits the sale of magazines holding more than 14 rounds, while Academy sold Kelley a rifle that came packaged with a 30-round magazine.
“They argue that because the rifle Academy sold to Kelley was inseparably packaged with a large-capacity magazine, that ‘sale’ could not have occurred legally in Colorado,” Lehrmann wrote.
But, she added, the sale was legal because the federal law applies only to the sale of firearms, not components.
Investigators found multiple empty 30-round magazines that Kelley had discarded inside the church. Such magazines eliminate the need to manually load a cartridge into the chamber before firing, greatly enhancing the firing rate, the court noted.
Justice Jeff Boyd wrote a concurring opinion saying he agreed with the outcome but would have dismissed one of the lawsuits’ claims under state, not federal law. Eva Guzman, who recently resigned from the court to run for Texas attorney general, did not participate in the ruling.
Friday’s decision did not affect federal court lawsuits by shooting survivors and relatives against the U.S. Air Force, which failed to report a domestic violence conviction that would have prohibited Kelley from purchasing a firearm.
Kelley had been found guilty of assaulting his wife and stepson and was dishonorably discharged from the service in 2012, but Air Force officials failed to report the conviction to the FBI background check system despite a requirement to do so.
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