SAN FRANCISCO – A federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit Thursday alleging gun industry sales tactics put weapons into the hands of criminals — in this case a white supremacist who killed a mail carrier and wounded three children.
The decision is expected to reignite U.S. Senate debate next year over a proposed bill immunizing the gun industry from being sued for crimes committed with their products.
Thirty-three states already have laws exempting gun manufacturers and distributors from such suits. The House in April passed the bill to extend the prohibition on such suits nationwide, and President Bush has said he would sign it. But Senate Democrats have threatened to filibuster the proposal, which is not expected to happen this year.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a case that was tossed out in 2001 by a Los Angeles federal judge before it went to trial. It had been filed against gun manufacturers and distributors whose weapons were used by white supremacist Buford Furrow, who wounded three children at a Jewish day care center in Granada Hills in 1999. Furrow then shot a Filipino-American postal worker to death as the man was working on his route in Chatsworth.
Letter carrier Joseph Ileto, 39, was shot nine times Aug. 10, 1999, about an hour after the heavily armed assailant fired more than 70 times into the North Valley Jewish Community Center, which was packed with children attending day-care programs. Three boys, a teenage girl and a woman were hurt.
Furrow fled to Las Vegas, where he surrendered the next day, announcing he had intended to send a “wake-up call to America to kill Jews.”
He is serving life in prison without parole.
Survivors claimed that weapons companies produced, distributed and sold more firearms than legal purchasers could buy. In addition, they claimed the industry knowingly participated and facilitated an underground illegal gun market.
Ruling 2-1, the appeals panel reinstated the case under California negligence and wrongful death statutes against Georgia-based Glock Inc., China North Industries Corp., RSR Management Corp. and RSR Wholesales guns Seattle Inc.
“I believe this is the first federal court of appeals decision to sustain a claim like this one,” said Peter Nordberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Since 1998, at least 33 municipalities, counties and states have sued gun makers, many claiming that manufacturers, through irresponsible marketing, allowed weapons to reach criminals. None of the suits has resulted in a manufacturer or distributor paying any damages.
Private groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also have sued, saying guns “led to disproportionate numbers of injuries, deaths and other damages” among minorities. That case was thrown out of federal court in July.
The Senate will not consider the immunity legislation this year, said Will Hart, spokesman for GOP Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho. Craig, one of the stronger proponents of the legislation, believes he has the votes to force the bill through the Senate despite filibuster threats, but wants to give senators a chance to debate the legislation first, Hart said.
With the Senate trying to adjourn for the year before Thanksgiving, it is unlikely the legislation will be considered before early next year, Hart said.
Christopher Renzulli, the attorney for Glock and the RSR companies, said Glock had nothing to do with Furrow’s assaults. While Furrow used a Glock to kill Ileto, the gun was originally sold to the Cosmopolis Police Department in Washington state from the RSR companies. According to court records, the department sold it to a gun shop, in exchange for a different model.
That gun shop sold it to a “gun collector.” That collector then is alleged to have sold it to Furrow — an ex-convict prohibited from purchasing weapons — at a gun show in Spokane, Wash. The department got rid of the weapon because it wasn’t the correct size for its force.
“How are we supposed to monitor a gun after we sell it to a law enforcement agency?” Renzulli said.
Renzulli said he was considering asking the appeals court to rehear the case with 11 judges if Congress does not immunize the industry.
In reinstating the case against Glock, Judge Richard Paez wrote that Glock’s marketing strategy with police departments creates a “supply of post-police guns that can be sold through unlicensed dealers without background checks to illegal buyers.”
The judge also wrote that Glock continues to supply weapons to distributors “who are responsible for the sales of guns that end up in the hands of criminals.” Under that theory, Paez reinstated the case against China North Industries, the maker of the short-barrel rifle Furrow used at the community center.
Joining Paez was Judge Sidney Thomas. Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall dissented, saying the majority was twisting the law to obtain a “just result” for the victims.
Charles Dick, China North Industries’ attorney, said he was reviewing the decision and declined comment.
The case is Ileto v. Glock, 02-56197.