[author: Aaron Kase]
A gunshot victim will be allowed to sue the manufacturer and distributor of the pistol that was used to shoot him, a New York appeals court ruled last week. The decision marks the first time such a lawsuit has been permitted since a 2005 federal law granted broad legal immunities to the firearm industry.
Daniel Williams was a high school basketball star in Buffalo with dreams of going on to play at a Division 1 college. The dream turned to nightmare in 2003 when he was shot in the gut at 16 years old, in what was apparently a case of mistaken identity.
Now a lawsuit that Williams filed against the manufacturer and distributor of the Hi-Point 9 mm semi-automatic “Saturday Night Special” handgun that cut short his playing career will be allowed to proceed, thanks to a unanimous decision by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court.
According to the lawsuit, gun trafficker James Bostic bought 181 guns from an Ohio dealer, Charles Brown, over a six-month period in 2000, using cash, through a straw purchaser named Kimberly Upshaw. Cornell Caldwell obtained one of the guns and used it to shoot Williams, thinking he was a rival gang member. Caldwell and Bostic were both arrested after the shooting.
Exception to the Law
With the help of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Williams is suing Brown, gun maker Hi-Point and distributor MKS Supply. Normally, manufacturers and distributors are immune from lawsuits over gun violence, thanks to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2005. Indeed, an initial court decision blocked Williams from bringing suit.
However, the Act does contain certain exceptions whereby manufacturers and distributors can be held liable, among them if the businesses know or have reason to know that the guns they sell will be used illegally. The Williams suit alleges that Bostic picked out and paid for the guns while Upshaw filled out the paperwork, which should have signaled to Brown that a straw purchase was occurring. Additionally, the fact that Bostic was buying Saturday Night Specials (a slang term for cheap guns popular with criminals) in bulk, should have tipped off the dealer that he was selling to a gun-trafficking ring, the lawsuit claims.
Brown may have violated a number of federal laws in selling the guns to Bostic, the court notes, including failing to keep proper records or verifying that the person filling out background check paperwork is the actual purchaser.
The court decided that the potential liability extended all the way back to the manufacturer, particularly because they had been warned by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that over 13,000 guns they had made from 1998 to 2000 went on to be used in crimes.
Profits Over People
Jonathan E. Lowy
The ruling may pave the way for suits to be filed against other distributors who flout the law as egregiously as Brown is alleged to have done. “This important ruling states that gun companies who choose to supply the criminal gun market are not above the law,” said Jonathan E. Lowy, director of the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project, in a press release. “When the gun industry places profits over people, it should and must be held accountable to the innocent victims of its dangerous practices.”
Lowy argued the appeal for Williams, in conjunction with the firm Connors & Vilardo.
The lawsuit could set an important precedent that gun makers and distributors must make at least a minimal effort to ensure they aren’t supplying a trafficking ring with the instruments of crime. “If a gun company knows or has reason to know that a dealer or distributor that is selling the guns is doing so irresponsibly and in some cases, illegally, they need to do something about it,” Lowy told the Associated Press. “They can’t just continue to blindly supply them, knowing they’re going to be arming criminals and just pocket the money and look the other way.”
Do you think gun manufacturers and sellers should bear some level of responsibility if their products are consistently being used in criminal activities?