The NRA is finally put on notice: Gun shop held liable for illegal gun sale

A Wisconsin jury found a gun shop acted negligently, allowing the straw purchase of a gun used to shoot two cops

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published October 14, 2015 5:29PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

"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 pointedly declared during last night's Democratic presidential debate, defending his vote to grant gun manufactures immunity from civil liability in Congress.

"On the other hand," the presidential hopeful continued. "Where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action," Sanders said, conceding to a change in opinion on gun shop owners' liability in gun crimes.

Well, hours before Sanders made his comments on the Las Vegas debate stage, a Wisconsin jury did just that, finding a Milwaukee area gun shop negligent in the sale of a gun used to shoot two Milwaukee police officers back in 2009.

Badger Guns, then known as Badger Outdoors, was once the top seller of guns later used in crimes in the whole country — selling 537 guns that were recovered from crime scenes in 2005 alone, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

When 18-year-old Julius Burton was looking to get his hands on a gun in 2009, he grabbed a 21-year-old friend and headed to Badger Guns where a sales associate helped his friend correct the paperwork for purchase of a semiautomatic pistol. The friend had correctly marked the box indicating that he was purchasing the gun for Burton, who was underage. Such an exchange, known as a "straw" purchase, is illegal and the Badger Guns shop clerk helped Burton's friend cover up that slip of honesty, as seen on footage from the store's surveillance video from that day.

The video also showed Burton pointing to the pistol, saying, "that's the one that I want."

A month later, Burton would use that gun to shoot Milwaukee police Officer Bryan Norberg and now-retired Officer Graham Kunisch in the face.

Kunisch lost an eye and suffered brain injury, forcing him to retire from the police department, but along with Norberg and the city of Milwaukee, he filed a lawsuit against Badger Guns in state court, charging that the shop clerk should have known that the purchase was illegal.

Burton, who is serving an 80 year sentence for the shootings, told the jury that he went to Badger Guns and paid his acquaintance $40 to make the purchase because that is where everyone went to get guns.

In fact, the officers' lawsuit contends that between 2007 and 2009, six other Milwaukee cops were shot by weapons sold by Badger Guns.

The jury's finding that Badger Guns was negligent and its award of of $3.6 million for Kunisch and $1.5 million, plus another $730,000 in punitive damages, for Norberg will be appealed but for now it stands as a landmark decision.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, "this high-profile case was only the second of its kind nationwide to make it to a jury since Congress passed a law a decade ago holding gun dealers and manufacturers immune from such lawsuits." But it most certainly is not the last as anti-gun violence advocates look for ways to prevent gun deaths while the push for new federal gun control regulations stalls out.

According to the New York Times, there are at least 10 other similar cases making their way up the courts across the country, including from two other Milwaukee officers shot by guns sold by Badger Guns.

In 2005, Congress passed legislation protecting gun manufacturers from civil liability lawsuits. Sanders supported the legislation as a member of the House.

"I voted against it," Sanders' Democratic rival Hillary Clinton offered during last night's debate. "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 issue of fun manufacture and gun shop owner liability is sure to continue to be an issue on the campaign trail but this case just dealt a major blow to the NRA.

The NRA's Wayne LaPierre has called federal immunity for gun manufactures and shops “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in 20 years,” adding that “history will show that this law helped save the American firearms industry from collapse under the burden of these ruinous and politically motivated lawsuits.”

Not ever case going forward will be so clear cut, with a video and a clear set of facts, but at least one jury in America has put the NRA on notice.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Badger Guns Gun Control Gun Crimes Gun Sense Gun Shop Guns Illegal Gun Sales Nra Straw Purchase