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Judge to rule how much the government will pay family and victims of church shooting

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Four years ago, a man who'd been kicked out of the U.S. Air Force fired hundreds of rounds into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Twenty-six people were killed, nearly two dozen injured, and a small town was shattered. Now, a federal court in San Antonio has to figure out how much the government owes survivors and victims for mistakes it made in the run-up to the shooting. Closing arguments in that trial took place today. And Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive was in the courtroom.

Hi, Paul.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what happened in that shooting four years ago.

FLAHIVE: Yeah. On November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley, a mentally disturbed man dressed in full tactical gear, loaded the high-capacity magazines for his assault rifle, a Ruger AR-556, tied up his wife and travel to the church, where her parents normally attended service. He then started shooting into the building.

David Colbath was attending that day and told TPR that he first thought they were firecrackers.

DAVID COLBATH: And I turned around, and I saw bullet holes coming through the door. So you could just see the actual hole. And I hollered at people to get on the floor. Get on the floor. And I took my first round right here somewhere, and it blew my arm out. And I fell to the floor really by the force of the bullet swinging my arm around.

FLAHIVE: The bullet in his forearm was just the first of 12 wounds he received from bullets and shrapnel. Kelley began spraying the hundred-year-old building from outside, then went into the church, going from pew to pew. He later killed himself.

SHAPIRO: I mentioned that this case is about how much the government owes survivors and victims. Why is the government considered responsible here?

FLAHIVE: Yeah. Earlier this year, the judge in the case, Xavier Rodriguez, found the government responsible for the shooting because Kelley's violent criminal record and history of threatening mass killings were not given to the FBI upon his discharge from the Air Force. Had that data been entered, he would not have been able to buy the guns he used.

SHAPIRO: So what was said in closing arguments today?

FLAHIVE: Victims and their families are seeking more than $400 million in damages for things like personal injury and continuing care. Just a few weeks ago, the plaintiffs presented life care plans that detailed the struggles of each victim from the immediate impact of bullet wounds to future nursing care, medications and more. Remember - the victims are permanently paralyzed. They all suffer from PTSD. And many parents lost children, and children lost parents. While the Air Force was found largely responsible, this year, the government presented its own expert witnesses, disputing the costs of future care, medications, surgeries and seeking to keep these awards lower.

SHAPIRO: And what's the next step?

FLAHIVE: Well, now Judge Rodriguez will have to determine the final award. He will take weeks, possibly longer, to bridge the gap between two very different numbers. On November 12, he had ordered both sides to give him a brief on what they thought was owed. I think he hoped the numbers would get closer together, and therefore make it easier to give a verdict. But there's still a massive chasm between the two, with the government saying it owes about 93% less than what victims have asked for. And even when there is still a chance that the government could appeal. Jamal Alsaffar, an attorney for the victims, called the government's response shocking and inhumane. Earlier this year, he said it was up to the DOJ and Biden administration to send a message about gun laws and gun violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMAL ALSAFFAR: This is their opportunity. This is the federal government of the United States who made this mistake and caused it. And if - you know, it's an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is when they say we are against gun violence - we know that that these laws matter and that these victims should have a say. And this is presenting that opportunity for them to do that.

FLAHIVE: And the DOJ settled cases where it found culpable of mass shootings - in the Charleston church shooting for $88 million, and recently for $130 million with survivors of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

SHAPIRO: That's Paul Flahive, a reporter for Texas Public Radio who's been in federal court today, covering the deadly Sutherland Springs church shooting.

Thank you, Paul.

FLAHIVE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.