WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has appealed a ruling that held federal government officials responsible for a 2017 mass shooting at a church in Texas that killed 26 people, arguing that the government should not be held liable for its failure to update the national firearms background check system.
The appeal, filed on Monday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, came nearly a year after a federal judge awarded $230 million in damages to survivors and families after holding the government 60 percent liable for the rampage at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
In a ruling in February, Judge Xavier Rodriguez of the Federal District Court in San Antonio found that Air Force officials had failed to submit crucial records, including a domestic violence conviction by a military court, that would have prevented the killer from obtaining the semiautomatic rifle used in the shooting from a licensed gun dealer.
Late last year, after an attempt at mediation with lawyers for the families of those killed and 22 others injured in the attack, the government withdrew from negotiations and decided to appeal the decision. That angered the families, their lawyers and gun control groups, who saw the case as a critical test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing the government’s responsibility to keep weapons out of the hands of mass shooters.
There is “no dispute that U.S. Air Force personnel failed to transmit to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System information about Kelley that would have identified him as ineligible to purchase that firearm,” Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s civil division, wrote in Monday’s filing, referring to the gunman.
“But that mistake is not a legally proper basis for imposing liability on the United States,” he added, or for finding the Air Force “more culpable for the deadly massacre than the shooter himself.”
Jamal Alsaffar, a lawyer for the families and survivors, called the department’s decision “a blow” to nationwide gun safety efforts and a “betrayal by their government.”
Mr. Alsaffar accused the department of trying to drive a pitiless bargain in the Sutherland Springs case after agreeing to large settlements after mass shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Charleston, S.C.
“The families offered to settle this case for less than the judge’s awards and far less than what the D.O.J. settled for in the Charleston and Parkland mass shootings, but they were rejected,” he said.
Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, said the appeal did not foreclose the possibility of a negotiated settlement in the future.
“Although the formal mediation has now ended, we remain open to resolving the plaintiffs’ claims through settlement and will continue our efforts to do so,” she said in a statement.
The department, she added, will “continue our efforts at an out-of-court resolution.”
On Nov. 5, 2017, Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, opened fire on congregants gathered for Sunday services at First Baptist Church.
Mr. Kelley, who died in the aftermath of the attack, served at an Air Force base in New Mexico until he was court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child. He was sentenced to 12 months’ confinement and received a “bad conduct” discharge, which should have prevented him from purchasing firearms or ammunition under federal law.
The Air Force later admitted that officials had failed to enter the conviction into the federal database used to perform criminal background checks.
Judge Rodriguez ordered the Air Force to pay damages to the victims for their “pain and suffering, mental anguish, disfigurement, impairment and loss of companionship,” the judge wrote, adding that the case was “unprecedented in kind and scope.”
He added, “There is no satisfying way to determine the worth of these families’ pain.”