Gun stores face little liability for the crimes committed with weapons that they sell. This is in part because federal law shields them from most (but not all) liability. However, two police officers have just successfully sued a gun store for negligence, the first-ever successful suit of its kind. If the jury’s verdict is upheld on appeal, this decision will have consequences for gun dealers in Wisconsin as well as in the entire U.S.
In May 2009, Jacob D. Collins entered a gun store called Badger Guns and purchased a Taurus PT140 Pro .40-caliber handgun. Collins was a “straw buyer”- in this a substitute buyer for someone who could not legally purchase a firearm. Collins was paid to acquire the gun for Julius Burton, an 18 year old who could not yet legally make the purchase. When Collins purchased the gun, he was asked whether or not he was the actual buyer of the gun- he said no- and was then instructed by a store employee to change his answer to yes. He did so, and walked away with a gun that the store knew would be given to another person.
One month later, Julius Burton was bicycling down a sidewalk when Officers Bryan Norberg and Graham Kunisch approached him and told him to move. Burton did not heed the officers and continued to bicycle. When the officers pursued Burton, he became aggressive. He then shot the officers seven times. Officers Norberg and Kunisch recovered from the shooting, but have long-term injuries. Burton was found guilty of attempted first-degree intentional homicide and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Collins was sentenced to two years for violating gun laws.
The Verdict Against Badger Guns
This shooting was not the first time a weapon that Badger Guns sold had been involved in a crime. According to the Milwaukee Chief of Police, six Milwaukee police officers had been shot with weapons which originated from Badger Guns between 2006 and 2009. After the Burton shooting, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and found that in 2005 Badger Guns, was the top seller of crime guns in the entire nation, with 537 guns involved in illegal activity.
Officers sued Badger Guns (and its related company, Badger Outdoors), saying that in this case, their actions led directly to the shooting. Employees had looked the other way to sell a handgun to a “straw buyer.” The officers won. A jury found that Badger Guns was negligent in the sale of the weapon that was used in the shooting. After a jury trial, they won a $5 million dollar settlement compensation for significant injuries that were a result of the shooting. One of the officers lost an eye and suffered brain damage. The other officer was shot in a way that damaged his teeth and jaw. Both suffer from anxiety and other psychological injuries due to the shooting.
A New Era of Responsibility for Gun Stores?
This was the first time that a gun store has been found negligent in court. Gun stores have generally been protected from repercussions for crimes committed with their products due to the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). This act limits civil liability for businesses engaged in the sale of firearms. However, this act still allows lawsuits to be brought against gun dealers who are negligent, sell defective weapons, or engage in criminal behavior. However, these suits are generally not pursued.
People on both sides of the gun debate are excited about this decision for different reasons. For those who favor gun control, this is a blow against indiscriminate gun sales and a reason for gun dealers to want to keep some of their inventory off the street. However, many Democrats, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, voted against the PLCAA and would like to further increase liability for gun stores. For gun rights advocates, this case sends a strong signal that the PLCAA is working, and that existing gun control laws don’t need to be changed.
This decision will likely be appealed by Badger Guns, and could eventually land in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. However, it sends a signal that this type of lawsuit is possible, and thus will have a more immediate impact on the way gun stores view their obligation to follow the rules.