Rifle Maker, Gun Store Settle in Sniper-Related Case
By Rebecca Cook
SEATTLE (AP) - A gun manufacturer's decision to pay $550,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by victims and victim's families in the Washington, D.C.-area sniper shootings is a first, a gun control lawyer says.
Bushmaster Firearms Inc. of Windham, Maine, made the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, a civilian version of the military M-16, used in the October 2002 shootings.
However, a Bushmaster lawyer said Wednesday the settlement was an economic decision and involved no admission of liability.
Bull's Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma, where the rifle came from, agreed to pay $2 million to the eight plaintiffs.
The settlement with Bushmaster marks the first time a gun manufacturer has agreed to pay damages to settle claims of negligent distribution of weapons, said Jon Lowy, a lawyer with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence who helped argue the case. He said the settlement with Bull's Eye Shooter Supply is the largest 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 Wednesday.
But Bushmaster lawyer Kelly Corr said the manufacturer and its insurance company, which will pay the $550,000, decided to settle rather than continuing to run up legal bills in court. Corr said the settlement will not change the way Bushmaster conducts business.
"Bushmaster believes it is a responsible manufacturer," Corr said.
A federal investigation determined the rifle was one of 200 or more guns missing from Bull's Eye that the owner at the time, Brian Borgelt, could not account for.
Borgelt, 40, a former Army ranger and military sniper instructor, told The News Tribune of Tacoma he had been conducting his own internal investigation for two years. He sold Bull's Eye last year but still operates a shooting range at the store near the Tacoma Dome.
"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," Borgelt told the newspaper.
"The perpetrators, as usual in a case like this, won't be able to provide anything," he added. "We're just glad to move on." A Pierce County Superior Court judge in Tacoma will determine how to divide the settlement among the plaintiffs - six families of people who were killed and two people who were injured in the shootings.
John Allen Muhammad, 43, was convicted and sentenced to death for murder in one of the 10 fatal shootings in the Washington, D.C.-area. His co-conspirator, 19-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, was tried separately, convicted of murder in a different death and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In a statement posted Wednesday evening on the Bushmaster Web site, company Chairman Richard Dyke said the $550,000 payment "will go to the victim's families for their grief."
As part of the settlement, Bushmaster agreed to educate its dealers on gun safety.
The civil lawsuit alleged that at least 238 guns, including the snipers' rifle, disappeared from the gun shop in the three years before the shooting rampage. Despite audits by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showing that Bull's Eye had dozens of missing guns, Bushmaster continued to use the shop as a dealer and provided it with as many guns as the owners wanted, the lawsuit
"Bull's Eye should have taken reasonable care to prevent guns from being stolen," Lowy said. "Bushmaster should have required Bull's Eye to implement simple, reasonable security measures."
Seattle attorney Paul Luvera represented the victims' families. He called the settlement "historic" and said it should change practices in the firearms industry.
A bill was proposed in Congress earlier this year that would have given the firearms industry immunity from lawsuits such as this one. Despite strong support from President Bush, it died in the Senate.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company