Survivors of a 2017 mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, say they are frustrated, confused and angry as the Justice Department nears a deadline to appeal a decision that found the federal government responsible for the attack that killed to 26 of his fellow church members.
Critics of the Justice Department’s potential appeal, including to surviving victims, said the agency’s stated arguments undermine the background check system, a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s gun policy priorities. Government lawyers claimed during the first trial that the gunman could have purchased firearms elsewhere, even if a background check would have prevented him from legally purchasing them from a licensed gun dealer.
The government has until January 9 to file its appeal, in which it could further argue that the background check system, a key defense in the United States to ensure that criminals or people with a history of violence do not acquire weapons, does not work. . , which critics say is a common gun lobby talking point.
The disharmony between the Justice Department case and the Biden administration’s gun safety efforts, as well as fears and pressure that a lost appeal could harm gun safety laws are at the crux of the acrimony. of the survivors.
“If I had the chance to meet President Biden, I would ask him, ‘Why? Why are they doing all this (gun reform) and yet they’re fighting here?’” said Juan “Gunny” Macias, a survivor who was shot numerous times in the attack and saw the president’s gun safety priorities as dissonant. with potential appeal from the Department of Justice.
In July 2021, the government was found liable for failing to provide records that could have prevented Devin Kelley from acquiring the gun he used in the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, and ordered to pay the more than 80 survivors. and relatives of the victims $230 million dollars. The Justice Department has received two extensions to file its appeal brief, which is now due next week, and is unlikely to receive another.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment, but argued in court that if the US Air Force had followed the law and the shooter had not been allowed to purchase a firearm, he could have found a gun differently and committed the same thing. act, according to court transcripts.
Although required by federal law, the Air Force did not inform the FBI about the gunman’s 2012 arrest and court martial for domestic violence. Had the military wing reported its court martial, it would have appeared in a background check and the former airman, who committed suicide after carrying out the mass shooting, would have been barred from purchasing or possessing firearms and ammunition.
He also did not warn others about a pattern of behavior that led to his being banned from all US military bases. The Air Force was aware of the death threats he made against his family, military security forces, police officers and members of his squad, court records show.
Macías, a retired Marine, was seriously wounded in the firefight. She broke down in tears as she described how she dealt with regular hernias, lead poisoning from the bullets, and the colostomy bag she now must wear that often leaks or falls off, making it difficult to travel in public and ruining “simple pleasures like sitting down to eat.” . ”
His voice betrayed a deep sense of anger as he spoke about the appeal involving more than 80 survivors and relatives of the victims, and the government’s failure to report the gunman’s violent past.
“The law exists for a reason,” Macías said. “And if they had followed that law, if they had done their job, this would never have happened. Twenty-six people would be alive today.
Jamal Alsaffar, a lawyer for the victims, said the Justice Department had withdrawn from mediation in the case and is preparing for a possible appeal that it believed could harm gun safety laws. He would also get his clients many more months of reliving the traumatic shooting, he said.
“The gun lobby can’t wait until they file this appeal because then they’ll say, ‘Look, even Biden’s (Justice Department) says they don’t have to follow background check laws because they don’t really work. ‘” he said.
The intentions of government lawyers may be to point out that the nation’s gun control measures are quite limited and that there are many loopholes that can be exploited, said Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York College in Cortland, author of six books on gun policy. However, supporters of the right to bear arms would likely celebrate the Justice Department’s success in the case, he added.
Since “Justice Department lawyers are hired to be good lawyers, not to be good Democrats or Republicans,” he said, they are likely to try to win at all costs without fully considering the political ramifications or how it will affect victims.
“I assume the Department of Justice is taking this position because lawyers are looking for the best legal avenues that will get them the result they want,” he said. “But sometimes a good legal strategy is a bad political strategy, and this could be an example of that.”
Hailey McNulty, who survived the shooting when she was 15, seemed to think that might be the case. She was shot five times and she has recovered, but she continues to be affected physically and emotionally after the shooting. Her mother, who pushed her under a bench and tried to protect her, was shot in the head and died inches from her during the attack.
“I was so scared and nervous that I turned around to try to get my mom’s attention to talk to her, and she wouldn’t respond,” she recalled, then broke down in tears when her grandmother talked about taking her to the hospital. hospital. “And then I realized that she was dead.”
McNulty argued that the Justice Department was cynically undermining background checks to win in court, which was at odds with the Biden administration’s political efforts to protect people from gun violence.
“How do you expect the citizens of the United States to comply with these laws when they see that those in charge don’t even have to listen to or comply with them themselves?” she said. “That’s what creates chaos. That is what creates problems like the ones we are facing.”
Fearing what an appeal of US gun laws could mean, a coalition of 37 gun safety organizations sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland in October about the Justice Department’s intent to appeal. In the letter, they claim that the federal government’s “refusal to accept responsibility for its failure in this case actively undermines the very gun safety laws it is required to enforce” and “abandons the government’s promise to keep communities safe by avoiding that prohibited persons purchase firearms.”
Expanded background checks and red flag laws were the cornerstone of Biden’s landmark gun control legislation that was passed this year after the Uvalde shooting in Texas, which killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers.
The White House said it could not comment on pending litigation, but stressed that Biden’s “commitment to reducing gun violence could not be clearer.”
“President Biden has championed stronger gun safety laws for decades, from helping establish the gun background check system and passing an assault weapons ban during his time in the Senate, to signing gun safety legislation into law. strongest guns in 30 years in the White House last summer,” said Olivia Dalton, White House deputy press secretary, adding that Biden intended to “take additional steps to end the scourge of gun violence in the United States.” Joined”.
But those intentions mean little to McNulty, especially since the potential for an appeal no longer looms that far in the distance.
While the government may argue that the gunman could have acquired the firearm elsewhere, “the problem is that he didn’t have to go to great lengths to find the guns he wanted,” he said. “He literally walked into the store and bought them just like anyone else.”