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DOJ reaches settlement with families of Sutherland Springs mass shooting

Helen Biesenbach leaves a message at a memorial where 26 crosses were placed to honor the victims killed at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on November 9, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Scott Olson
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Getty Images
Helen Biesenbach leaves a message at a memorial where 26 crosses were placed to honor the victims killed at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on November 9, 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it reached a tentative settlement of $144.5 million with the families of the victims of themass shooting that took place in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017.

The shooting took place in a church and killed 25 people including a pregnant woman. Officials put the death toll at 26, and it remains the deadliest mass shooting in the state's history.

The families of those who died sued the federal government, because the shooter, who was in the Air Force, had a history of domestic violence that should have been flagged in the background system to prevent him from buying a weapon. But the Air Force never entered the information into the database.

"The Sutherland Springs families are heroes. The country owes them a debt of gratitude," Jamal Alsaffar, the lead trial attorney for the plaintiffs, said. "They have gone through so much pain and loss in the most horrific way."

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said the announcement brings the litigation to a close, but "no words or amount of money can diminish the immense tragedy of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs."

The settlement comes after months of back-and-forth in the case. A district judge originally ruledthat the government was 60% responsible for the attack that took place because of its failure to enter the shooter's domestic violence history into the background check system. The judge said the government owed the families $230 million.

But in January, the DOJ appealedthe ruling, arguing that it could not be held mostly responsible for the attack and pushed back on paying damages. That position stunned gun-control advocates and received praise from the National Rifle Association.

Wednesday's tentative settlement, once finalized, would be the third time the U.S. government has paid out victims' families in the aftermath of a mass shooting. The government has also paid out victims from the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., and the 2015 shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.