By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) -A federal judge found the U.S. government was 60% responsible for a 2017 mass shooting in which a former Air Force airman used firearms he should not have been allowed to purchase to kill 26 people at a rural Texas church.
In a decision released on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez said the Air Force did not use reasonable care when it failed to enter Devin Patrick Kelley's plea to domestic violence charges in a database used for background checks for those buying firearms.
Rodriguez said the government bore "significant responsibility" for harm to victims of the Nov. 5, 2017 massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, 31 miles (50 km) east of San Antonio.
Twenty-two people were also injured when Kelley, dressed in black and wearing a skull mask, opened fire at a Sunday service.
Kelley, 26, died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head after crashing his vehicle into a ditch following a chase, officials said.
Victims and their families sued the government for its alleged negligence in letting Kelley buy weapons, despite his admission in a 2012 court martial to striking his former wife and infant stepson.
Kelley was discharged for bad conduct in 2014. A government report in December 2018 said the Air Force missed six chances to alert law enforcement about his history of domestic abuse.
In a 99-page decision, Rodriguez rejected the government's claim it could not foresee the shooting, saying it knew more than even Kelley's parents about his capacity for violence.
"Had the government done its job and properly reported Kelley's information into the background check system, (it) is more likely than not that Kelley would have been deterred from carrying out the church shooting," he wrote.
The San Antonio judge found Kelley only 40% responsible for the shooting. He ruled after a 10-day bench trial in April, and plans a separate trial on damages.
Tom Jacob, a lawyer for some plaintiffs, called the decision a "huge step" for families who "endured so much loss and then had to endure their government trying to avoid responsibility."
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Bill Berkrot)