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Milwaukee Case Considers Gun Dealer's Responsibility In Shootings

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A store called Badger Guns sold the gun that was used to shoot two Milwaukee police officers in the head six years ago. One of them was seriously wounded. The other lost an eye and suffered brain damage. The Taurus semiautomatic handgun was obtained as a straw purchase. The 18-year-old shooter couldn't buy it legally, so he paid someone he knew to buy it for him. Now, in a civil lawsuit, the officers say Badger Guns knew the sale was illegal, and a jury is now deliberating whether the store should be held responsible. John Diedrich has been covering this case for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He's here to talk more about it. Welcome to the program, John.

JOHN DIEDRICH: Thank you.

CORNISH: So this kind of case where, basically, a gun dealer's responsibility is being raised is actually pretty rare. Can you talk about why that is?

DIEDRICH: That's right. Ten years ago, Congress passed a law that really exempted gun stores and gun manufacturers from these very cases. It exempted them in a way that really granted broad immunity. And most cases now are really only able to be brought if a violation of the law is shown. And what happened in this case involving Badger Guns in Milwaukee is that the plaintiffs, the injured officers, argued that, in fact, this was not lawful commerce, that this was an illegal transaction. And that allowed them to bring the case before a jury.

CORNISH: So remind us what happened in the situation. We mentioned a straw purchase, and I understand, over the course of the case, they actually showed video surveillance showing the purchase of the weapon.

DIEDRICH: That's right. There was an individual named Jacob Collins who came into the store. He was 21 years old at the time, so he was able to legally buy the handgun. And he was buying it for an individual named Julius Burton. And during the trial, they showed surveillance video from inside Badger Guns showing what the plaintiff's attorney said was really tell-tale signs of straw purchasing.

The individual, Julius Burton, who ultimately shot the officers - he was hanging sort of on the shoulder of Jacob Collins when he was filling out the paperwork. When Jacob Collins came to a point in the paperwork that said if he was the actual buyer of the gun, he marked no initially, which should've stopped the sale, really, at that point, according to the plaintiff's attorney. But the clerk allowed him to change his answer to yes.

There are other indications as well. For instance, when he didn't have enough cash at the end, the two of them left the store together, and the straw buyer, Jacob Collins, came back in with the money.

CORNISH: And this is important because essentially, plaintiffs are arguing that the gun dealers did not follow the law and that they have a history of this.

DIEDRICH: That's right. This goes back - this is a gun dealer that's been in operation here in Milwaukee for more than 20 years, and it's been the largest supplier of crime guns recovered by police not only in Milwaukee but, when it was under a previous name, Badger Outdoors, it was the highest supplier of gun - crime guns in the nation.

And there's been a number of straw purchases that have been brought through federal court that originated in Badger Guns and Badger Outdoors. And during testimony during the trial, the individual who shot the officers - he testified that it's well-known on the streets of Milwaukee that this is the place to come to get a gun.

CORNISH: So help us put this case in context. Have there been any similar lawsuits brought since that law was passed in 2005 limiting these suits against gun dealers?

DIEDRICH: There have been suits. This is only the second one to go to trial. One earlier this year in Alaska, the jury found in the favor of the gun store. And there are some others that are behind it in the pipeline. And again, what they're focusing in on is that the gun stores themselves are violating the law. The law itself includes the word lawful commerce, and so the theory is that if it's unlawful commerce, they're not exempt from the law. But we expect that there'll be other cases and other lawyers around the country that are watching this case to find out what the outcome will be and whether it'll be helpful as they advance in their cases.

CORNISH: That's John Diedrich of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DIEDRICH: Thanks - my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.