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   ACongressional                                                         _______
           ~Research Service
   ~hforming the leg slative debate since 1914





Can Mass Shooting Victims Sue the United

States?



October 17, 2019
Several weeks after the police arrested Dylann Roof for unlawfully possessing a controlled substance,
Roof tried to buy a semiautomatic handgun. Under existing law, this previous arrest should have
disqualified Roof from obtaining that weapon. However, the FBI-by its own admission-committed
oversights while performing Roof's background check. As a result, Roof successfully purchased the
firearm despite his prior arrest. Roof then killed nine people with that handgun in a racially motivated
attack on a South Carolina church.
Several of Roof's victims (or their estates) sued the United States, seeking to hold the federal government
liable for failing to prevent Roof from purchasing the firearm he used in the shooting. In its August 30,
2019 opinion in Sanders v. United States, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Fourth
Circuit) rejected the United States's request to dismiss the victims' case. Sanders may be significant to
Congress not only due to the national attention surrounding Roof's case, but also because the litigation
implicates broader debates over when-and subject to what conditions-a private party may sue the
federal government. This Sidebar describes the statutes and legal principles governing when a plaintiff
may pursue tort litigation against the United States, explains how the Sanders court applied those laws
and doctrines, and identifies potential considerations for Congress.

Sovereign Immunity and the Federal Tort Claims Act
The doctrine of sovereign immunity ordinarily bars private parties from suing the United States without
the government's consent. To enable persons injured by the federal government to obtain recourse,
however, Congress has waived the United States's immunity from certain lawsuits. For example, the
Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) enables plaintiffs to pursue certain state law tort claims against the
federal government. For instance, a plaintiff injured by a federal employee's negligence can potentially
sue the United States to obtain compensation.
However, the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity is subject to numerous conditions and limitations.
Of particular relevance here, Congress decided to preserve the United States's immunity from certain
categories of tort lawsuits that, in Congress's view, would inappropriately require judges to engage in
Isecond-guessing' of legislative and administrative decisions grounded in social, economic, and political
policy. To that end, 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a)-also known as the discretionary function exception-bars

                                                                 Congressional Research Service
                                                                   https://crsreports.congress.gov
                                                                                      LSB10355

CRS Legal Sidebar
Prepared for Members and
Committees of Congress

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