Gun shop settles with families for $2 million
News Tribune Staff and The Associated Press
The Tacoma gun shop where East Coast snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo got their rifle has agreed to pay $2 million to victims and their families. The settlement against Bull's Eye Shooter Supply was announced Wednesday evening.
The rifle's manufacturer, Bushmaster Firearms Inc. of Windham, Maine, also agreed to pay $550,000, said Mark Firmani, a spokesman for Seattle attorney Paul Luvera, who represented the victims' families in a lawsuit against the company and the gun shop.
The settlement with Bushmaster marks the first time a gun manufacturer has agreed to pay damages for negligent distribution of weapons, said Jon Lowy, a lawyer with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Lowy helped argue the case. Firmani said the settlement with Bull's Eye Shooter Supply is the largest ever against a gun dealer.
"These settlements send a loud and clear message that the gun industry cannot turn a blind eye to how criminals get their guns," Lowy said.
Firmani agreed. "It's a landmark settlement," he said.
Brian Borgelts, former owner of Bull's Eye Shooter Supply and a defendant in the case, called the settlement "the right thing to do."
"We just decided, it being a no-win situation for us any way you sliced it, that it would be best to settle and get something in the way of relief for the victims and the victims' families, the poor people who survived this," said Borgelts, who owned the shop when the rifle was apparently stolen. He since has sold Bull's Eye but continues to operate a shooting range at the shop on Puyallup Avenue. "The perpetrators, as usual in a case like this, won't be able to provide anything. We're just glad to move on."
The shop's insurance carrier will cover the cost of the settlement, Firmani said.
Bushmaster Firearms posted a statement on its Web site late Wednesday. Company chairman Richard Dyke said he was "pleased to announce a conclusion to the D.C. sniper case brought by the victims' families and the Brady organization. The balance of the insurance policy not spent on legal fees, approximately $550,000, will go to the victims' families for their grief."
The company's lawyer, Kelly Corr, said it made "no admission of liability whatsoever." Corr said Bushmaster settled rather than continuing to run up legal fees. The settlement will not change the way Bushmaster conducts business, he said.
"Bushmaster believes it is a responsible manufacturer," Corr said. As a part of the settlement, though, Bushmaster agreed to educate its dealers on gun safety.
Firmani said a Pierce County Superior Court judge will determine how to divide the settlement among the eight plaintiffs - six families of people who were killed and two people who were injured in the shootings.
Muhammad, 43, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in one of the 10 fatal shootings in October 2002 in the Washington, D.C.-area. His co-conspirator, the now 19-year-old Malvo, was tried separately, convicted of murder in a different death and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Authorities believe the two probably stole the assault rifle they used in the killings - a .223-caliber Bushmaster that is a civilian version of the military's M-16.
The civil lawsuit against Bull's Eye and Bushmaster was filed in Pierce County Superior Court in January 2003. It alleged that at least 238 guns, including the gun used by Muhammad and Malvo, disappeared from the gun shop in the three years prior to the sniper spree.
The suit, which still names Muhammad and Malvo as defendants, also alleged that Bushmaster inappropriately continued to use Bull's Eye as a dealer for its weapons, even though federal audits found that Bull's Eye was missing dozens of guns. Borgelts said he has been conducting his own internal investigation for two years.
"It appears the 17-year-old Malvo was able to stroll into this gun store and stroll out carrying a 3-foot-long, $1,000 Bushmaster assault rifle," said the Brady center's Lowy. "Bull's Eye should have taken reasonable care to prevent guns from being stolen. Bushmaster should have required Bull's Eye to implement simple, reasonable security measures."News Tribune staff writer Adam Lynn contributed to this report.Inside•Second trial for sniper delayed. A6