A Milwaukee jury on Tuesday 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 that they said was negligent in screening the buyer.
Milwaukee policemen Bryan Norberg and Graham Kunisch sued Badger Guns in 2010 in Milwaukee County court after they were shot by a suspect who obtained his weapon through a so-called straw purchase.
"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.
Julius Burton, who was too young at the time to purchase a firearm, 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 lawsuit said.
Burton shot Norberg and Kunisch on June 9, 2009, when they attempted to apprehend him. Burton later pleaded guilty to attempted homicide. Collins pleaded guilty to federal charges for the straw purchase.
If the verdict against the gun store survives possible appeals, it would be the first of its kind since the U.S. Congress in 2005 approved a law making gun manufacturers and suppliers largely immune to lawsuits with some exceptions.
One of the law's exceptions is when a gun store knowingly violates a state or federal law by facilitating a buyer's purchase of a weapon for someone who is not legally allowed to buy one, known as a straw purchase.
"One thing that this case might do ... is provide encouragement that certain forms of these suits are once again viable and it might be worth people's while to bring these cases," said Timothy Lytton, a gun litigation expert at the Georgia State University College of Law.
A representative of Badger Guns was not immediately available for comment.
In a similar case, a gun dealer in Alaska was found not liable in June for selling a gun used in a 2006 murder.The families of nine people killed in the 2012 massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school have sued the manufacturer of the weapon used in that attack.
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(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Eric Beech)