Lawsuits target gun stores and manufacturers for allegedly irresponsible sales

© Lucy Nicholson
Frustrated with legislative inaction on gun reform, survivors and victims’ families are increasingly suing gun manufacturers and retailers. One recent lawsuit is targeting a store after two Milwaukee police officers were injured by a gun bought for a minor.

Closing arguments were made on Monday in a civil lawsuit filed by two police officers against the owners of the Badger Guns store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The lawsuit relates to a 2009 incident when a minor, Julius Burton, who was 18 at the time, paid 21-year-old acquaintance Jacob Collins $40 to be the official buyer of a weapon.

According to The New York Times, a month later Burton used the Taurus semiautomatic pistol to shoot two police officers. One lost an eye and was left with brain damage; the other was seriously wounded in the face. In their complaint against Badger Guns, filed five years ago, Officers Graham Kunisch and Bryan Norberg argued that surveillance video shows Burton pointing to the pistol and saying, “That’s the one I want.” Then Burton helped Collins to fill out a two-page form and was assisted by the store clerk.

Burton was sentenced to 80 years in prison, while Collins received two years in federal prison on a straw-buying conviction.

Six Milwaukee police officers were shot with firearms sold by the same store over a period of less than two years. Two other officers have sued, and their case is set to go to trial next year, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The trial is being watched closely for future implications, as it will include jury deliberations and police charges that the gun owner and clerk knew, or should have known, that the transaction was illegal and were negligent in its sales.

“If the jury in Milwaukee rules for the victims, it would be a notable and unusual victory,” Timothy Lytton, an expert in torts law and gun cases at the Georgia State University College of Law, told The New York Times. “It may well embolden more plaintiffs to bring lawsuits, and give new momentum to a litigation campaign that looked all but dead after 2005.”

Ten years ago, Congress passed The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which protected firearms retailers and manufacturers from criminal or unlawful misuse by purchasers. The federal law allows lawsuits in limited circumstances, if, for instance, the gun dealer broke the law or was negligent in its sales. Another case made a similar charge against a retailer, though that one ended this summer in a victory for an Alaskan gun store.

In the Alaskan case, relatives of a shooting victim sued the gun dealer for negligence for selling a rifle in 2006 to a methamphetamine-using fugitive. The clerk left the would-be buyer unattended with the rifle, and the buyer walked out of the store with it, leaving $200 on the counter. He later used it to shoot and kill a man.

At the time the federal law was passed, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and other groups tried to argue, without success, that the act was unconstitutional, and it robbed victims of their basic rights.

The act “creates unprecedented immunity that no other industry in America enjoys,” Jonathan Lowy, director of the legal action project at the Brady Center, told NYT.

Relatives and families of victims and survivors continue to sue. Families sued the maker and seller of the Bushmaster assault-style rifle Adam Lanza used to kill 26 people during the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. In the suit, they argued the maker and seller should have expected that the sale of a military-style weapon, with a large magazine of high power cartridges, to an untrained civilian would result in murders and mishaps. The lawsuit is still in its early stages.

The parents of Jessica Ghawi also sued online ammunition companies in connection with the 2012 Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, when James Holmes opened fire during the screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12 people and injuring 70 others. Holmes deployed tear gas, wore body armor and used several weapons to shoot at the audience.

Jessica’s parents, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, argued in their lawsuit that the way four online companies sold ammunition to Holmes was “unreasonably dangerous and creates a public nuisance.” They said they didn’t file the suit for monetary gain but because survivors of gun violence need to know that the online system allows the ammunition sales to take place.

[Holmes] bought steel-jacketed ammo that went through the chairs of the theater, went through the walls of the theater into the theater next door. [He] hit my daughter, who was hiding behind a seat…one bullet hit her in the head and created a five-inch hole…and blew her brains out,” Sandy Phillips told MSNBC.

Their suit was dismissed by a federal judge and the Phillips' were ordered to cover the defendant’s court costs. In his order to dismiss the case, Judge Richard Matsch said the suit had been filed for propaganda purposes.

“It is apparent that this case was filed to pursue the political purposes of the Brady Center and, given the failure to present any cognizable legal claim, bringing these defendants into the Colorado court where the prosecution of James Holmes was proceeding appears to be more of an opportunity to propagandize the public and stigmatize the defendants than to obtain a court order,” the judge’s order said.

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips told MSNBC that the judge’s decision left them facing possible bankruptcy.