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Milwaukee Gun Shop Found Liable for Selling Handgun Used to Shoot Two Cops

The ruling came just hours after the Democratic presidential candidates debated the topic of gun-shop liability in the first democratic primary debate.
October 14, 2015, 10:55pm
Houston Gun show at the George R. Brown Convention Center, 24 March 2007 (Photo via Flickr)

A Milwaukee jury handed a rare legal defeat to the gun industry, awarding $6 million to two police officers who were shot by a handgun acquired at a local gun store. The store, the jury found, had been negligent when it sold the handgun to a man who clearly planned to pass it along to a third-party — a process known as a "straw purchase."

The decision, issued on Tuesday, came just hours after the Democratic presidential candidates debated the topic of gun shop liability in the first democratic primary debate. Bernie Sanders came to the defense of laws that shield gun dealers from similar suits.

"Do I think that a gun shop in the state of Vermont that sells legally a gun to somebody, and that somebody goes out and does something crazy, that that gun shop owner should be held responsible? I don't," Bernie Sanders said, in defense of a vote he cast in 2005 for a law that shielded gun manufacture from liability claims. "On the other hand...where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action."

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Clinton used the issue to draw a distinction between herself and Sanders.

"I voted against it," she said. "I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn't that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers."

The case in Milwaukee was brought by policemen Bryan Norberg and Graham Kunisch against a gun shop, called Badger Guns. In 2010, a court in Milwaukee County found the two officers were shot by a suspect who obtained his weapon through a straw-purchase at the shop — the suit sought to extend liability for the crime to the shop owners themselves.

Julius Burton, who was 18 at the time and thus too young to buy a handgun, paid Jacob Collins $40 to buy a .40-caliber handgun at Badger Guns in May 2009, the lawsuit said.

During the purchase, Collins initially checked "no" on a federal firearms transaction form that asked whether he was the actual buyer of the weapon, before a gun store employee told him to change his answer to "yes." The exchange was captured on the shop's surveillance camera.

Burton later shot Norberg and Kunisch on June 9, 2009, when they attempted to apprehend him. Kunisch lost his eye and suffered a brain injury. Burton — who told the court that Badger Guns was known as an easy place to buy a gun — later pleaded guilty to attempted homicide. Collins pleaded guilty to federal charges for the straw purchase.

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Tuesdays' ruling successfully extended the liability for the crime to the gun shop.

"It's important to be able to take a gun dealer to task," said attorney Patrick Dunphy, who represented the officers. Jurors awarded about $5 million in compensatory damages and another $1 million in punitive damages.

The case was only the second of its kind to reach a jury trial since congress passed the liability law in 2005. Currently, around 10 similar cases are being considered by the courts — two of those cases involve the same gun shop in Milwaukee.

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