One of the most pressing issues facing the city of Chicago is the current gun violence that plagues the community. It seems as though every day the local news is reporting on another shooting or other violent crime involving guns across the city. While the issue of gun control and firearm regulation has sparked heated debate across the county, the neighboring city of Milwaukee recently tried a new, untested approach at regulating firearms: using the legal system to hold gun shops who are careless in firearm sales accountable for violent crime resulting from an illegal sale. Just yesterday, Milwaukee’s efforts appeared successful. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, “a jury late Tuesday found Badger Guns and its owner liable in the wounding of two Milwaukee police officers in a first-of-its-kind verdict that was being watched nationwide.
The lawsuit was brought against Badger Guns, a firearms store recognized as one of the top sellers of guns that are later recovered in the commission of a crime. In this case, the plaintiff’s were two Milwaukee police officers, Bryan Norberg and Grahm Kunisch. According to the New York Times, the officers claimed that the gun shop sold a gun to an individual named Jacob Collins, while at the same time knowing that Mr. Collins was fronting the purchase for an 18 year old who was ineligible to buy the gun. This type of sale is called a straw man purchase. The eventual owner of the gun, Julius Burton, used the gun to shoot both officers in the head causing permanent and traumatic brain injuries. The shooting occurred one month after the purchase of this firearm.
This type of lawsuit is incredibly rare. In fact, since the 2005 passage of the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, there has only been one other lawsuit brought against a firearms dealer. This other lawsuit, which was tried before a jury in Alaska, resulted in a not guilty verdict. As the Journal Sentinel explains, as a result of the 2005 law, broad immunity is provided to gun dealers making it very difficult to hold them accountable for violent crimes committed as a result of a shop’s unlawful gun sales. However, the New York Times notes, the law “provides for exceptions that were cited in the Milwaukee case: Victims wounded with a weapon can pursue civil damages if the seller of a firearm knew, or should have known, that the transaction was illegal, or that it would very likely pose a danger.”
This exception was the heart of the trial in Milwaukee. Essentially, jurors were asked to decide whether it was more probable than not that employees of Badger Guns knew that the person buying the gun at issue was not buying the gun for his own use. Such an action would result in an illegal firearm sale. Attorneys for the injured officers presented numerous examples that showed the gun was most likely being purchased for Mr. Burton. For example, Mr. Burton accompanied Mr. Collins to the store, helped him pick out the gun, and even went outside the store to provide additional money to Mr. Collins when he was short the purchase price.
After considering this evidence, the jury concluded that Badger Guns employees acted negligently in allowing the sale as they should have known Mr. Collins was not purchasing the gun for himself. They awarded the officers approximately $6 million in damages. Included in this amount was reimbursement for the officers extensive past and future medical treatment, money for the pain and suffering the officers have endured and money for the drastic changes to their everyday life. Also included in this amount was an award of $750,000 in punitive damages aimed at sending a message and penalizing the gun store for the illegal sale. Badger Guns plans to appeal this verdict.
However, the magnitude of such a verdict is difficult to understate. As the New York Times notes, “the suit was closely watched by gun-control advocates, the firearms industry and legal scholars because it involved a rare test before a jury of the responsibility of gun sellers for the criminal use of their products.” At the end of the day, this result appears to hold a company accountable for their negligence in illegally selling a dangerous product while providing compensation for two police officers whose lives were forever changed as a result of this store’s actions.