SEATTLE (Reuters) - The company that made the Bushmaster rifle used in the Washington-area sniper killings and a gun shop that lost track of the firearm agreed to pay $2.5 million to victims in what lawyers said on Thursday was an unprecedented settlement.
The payout for eight victims of the October 2002 shootings was the first of its kind by a gun manufacturer accused of negligent distribution of firearms, said Daniel Vice, an attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of the victims.
John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were found guilty last year for a shooting spree that killed 10 and injured three. In October 2003, Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without parole and Muhammad was sentenced to death.
Bushmaster Firearms Inc. of Windham, Maine, which makes the civilian version of the military M-16 rifle, agreed to pay $550,000 to the families of six victims and two survivors of the shootings.
The Bull's Eye Gun Shop in Tacoma, Washington, near Seattle, also agreed to pay $2 million. Bull's Eye has said that the Bushmaster rifle used in the shootings disappeared from its shop.
"This has now set a precedent nationwide that gunmakers and gun dealers will be held responsible if they continue to sell guns to criminals," Vice said.
A representative of Bull's Eye was not immediately available for comment. Bushmaster did not comment beyond a statement posted on its Web site that said the settlement was not an admission of wrongdoing.
"Our choice was to continue spending it on trial lawyers or turn it over directly to the victims' families with no funds going to the Brady Group for their legal fees," Bushmaster said.
"The Brady Group's attempt at claiming a victory over firearms manufacturers is a hollow one... Their attempt to eliminate gun rights of citizens has failed legislatively and will continue to fail with these frivolous lawsuits against gun manufacturers."
"It wasn't about money. It was about making a statement that you have to be responsible in the way you carry on your business, if you are going to sell such lethal weapons to the general public," said Victoria Snider, whose brother, James "Sonny" Buchanan, was killed in the sniper shootings.
The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation that would limit lawsuits against the gun industry. The bill was backed by the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby. Some critics of the legislation contended it would block lawsuits such as the sniper case.
But companion legislation was defeated in the Senate after it was modified to include an extension of the assault weapons ban, set to expire on Monday. The NRA also strongly opposed any extension of the assault weapons ban.
Snider, who spoke at a news conference at the Brady Center in Washington, D.C., said her "biggest fear" was that now-banned automatic weapons would become available to the public.
"I'm appalled at that and I hope President Bush (news - web sites) is listening and I hope that he changes that, he doesn't let it expire, that he continues the ban on assault weapons," she said.
The Brady Center said 238 guns had disappeared from the Bull's Eye gun shop, near where Muhammad and Malvo lived for a brief time, and that more than 50 guns from the shop were traced to criminal acts between 1997 and 2001.
I love how they twist shit until it can't be any more twisted.