A Texas judge ruled on Monday that the families of victims of the Sutherland Springs church shooting two years ago can sue the gun store that sold the murder weapon—a precedent that could carry broad implications for gun dealers.
On Nov. 5, 2017, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church with a Ruger AR-556 rifle, a semi-automatic military-style rifle that he purchased from Academy Sports+Outdoors, a gun shop in San Antonio. Several families of his victims brought a suit against Academy, arguing the gun shop was liable for selling Kelley the weapon due to a complicated mashup of federal and local laws in Texas and Kelley’s home state of Colorado (more on that later). Academy petitioned to have the lawsuit thrown out, but on Monday, Bexar County District Court Judge Karen Pozza declined to toss the case.
The lawsuit, which was brought by Chris Ward, who lost his wife and two children in the shooting, focuses specifically on Academy’s decision to sell Kelley a 30-round high-capacity magazine for the Ruger AR. Thirty-round magazines are legal in Texas but not in Colorado. Academy is arguing that it’s protected by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which stops victims from suing gun manufacturers and dealers unless they were negligent or broke federal or state laws; Ward and his lawyers argue that Academy shouldn’t have sold Ward the gun and high-cap mag when he bought it with a Colorado ID. Roseanne Solis and Joaquin Ramirez, a husband and wife who were both wounded in the attack but survived, filed a separate lawsuit on similar grounds.
The Dallas Morning News, which has been covering all of the Sutherland Springs court proceedings in detail, reported on Monday’s hearing:
“Academy is the gatekeeper to protect people from buying guns who shouldn’t have them,” attorney Jason Webster said. “When you have a guy who’s 850 miles from his home and paying cash ... that kind of raises some flags.”
In one hand, Webster clutched an AR-556. In the other, a magazine. One doesn’t work without the other, he said, so arguing that “magazine” and “gun” are two different things is like arguing a car isn’t a car without its wheels.
“If Academy were to have followed the law, that gun would not have been in his hands,” Webster said. “If anybody deserves their day in court, it’s these families here.”
The case hinges on whether or not a magazine is considered part of a gun (hence Webster’s tire analogy). The technical nature of the case is undoubtedly going to make gun rights activists furious—there’s an easy argument to make in Academy’s favor because it sold a magazine that was legal in Texas. But what’s important about the case, to me, is the precedent it would set for weapons dealers. They have to be flawless about this stuff: If someone tries to buy a gun with a Colorado ID, look up the Colorado gun laws. This isn’t someone nipping across county lines to get a six pack in a wet county, it’s buying a device that gives someone the ability to kill dozens of people in the blink of an eye.
Outside of the magazine laws, the series of events that armed Kelley with a killing machine show an institutional failure at nearly every level.
As the San Antonio Current reported back in December:
The firearm record form is not the only controversy related to Kelley’s gun ownership. Kelley was convicted of domestic abuse while in the United States Air Force, and should not have been allowed to purchase a firearm. But the Air Force admitted it had failed to enter Kelley’s criminal charge into a federal criminal database for background checks on gun purchases.
Another family is suing the Air Force for this mistake. Good. Sue everyone involved, at every step of the way. The hope, going forward, is that these cases establish a precedent that ensures the specific set of loopholes and mistakes that armed Kelley don’t happen again. Will this completely end the scourge of mass shootings in America? No. But if we put the fear of God and significant legal action in gun dealers and make them reckon with the consequences of their wares, the country will be better off.