Thursday, September 9, 2004

Relatives of eight persons shot in the 2002 sniper shootings said yesterday they hope their $2.5 million settlement with the maker and seller of the Bushmaster rifle used in the shootings will force gun makers and dealers to keep closer track of weapons.

The settlement marks the first time a gun manufacturer has agreed to settle a lawsuit claiming negligence leading to a crime, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which helped the families file the suit.

Sonia Wills, mother of sniper victim Conrad Johnson, said her family took part in the lawsuit more to send a message than to collect money from Bushmaster Firearms and Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Wash.

“I think a message was delivered that you should be responsible and accountable for the actions of irresponsible people when you make these guns and put them in their hands,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association declined to comment yesterday.

Gary Mehalik, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group, said Bushmaster likely chose to settle “to make the lawyers go away.”

“Everyone in our industry has great sympathy for the victims in this tragedy,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the focus is not on the individuals who plotted and went on a shooting rampage. Instead, we’re focusing on a shopkeeper who had a product stolen.”

Eight families settled Wednesday with Bushmaster Firearms, which made the rifle used in the shootings, and Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply, the gun shop where the rifle was stolen. The lawsuit claimed Bull’s Eye was negligent for allowing the gun and others to disappear from its shop. The suit also faulted Bushmaster for selling the weapon to a dealer that the families claimed was irresponsible.

Authorities believe John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad stole the gun from Bull’s Eye and later used it during their spree. Both were convicted of murder last year. Malvo was sentenced to life without parole for the slaying of Linda Franklin outside the Falls Church Home Depot. Muhammad was sentenced to death for killing Dean Harold Meyers at a Manassas gas station.

The two used a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, a civilian version of the military M-16.

The civil lawsuit said 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, Firearms and Explosives 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 said.

“It appears that … Malvo was able to stroll into this gun store and stroll out carrying a 3-foot-long, $1,000 Bushmaster assault rifle,” said Jon Lowy, a lawyer with the Brady Center. “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.”

Bushmaster did not admit fault and said in a defiant statement yesterday that the settlement was not a victory for gun advocates. From its headquarters in Wyndham, Maine, the company said it supports federal laws requiring dealers to be licensed, and it would not change corporate practices because of the lawsuit.

Bushmaster said it settled because of escalating legal fees and the dwindling amount of insurance money it had left for the case.

“We felt the compassionate thing to do was to give it to the victim’s families,” the statement said.

But gun-control advocates said it was ridiculous that the company was painting itself as compassionate.

“It is utterly far-fetched to believe that this is the act of a good Samaritan company,” said Dennis Henigan, legal director for the Brady Center.

Relatives said they were unsure what they would do with the settlement money. Mrs. Wills said she may build a small memorial to her son, a Ride On bus driver, at his birthplace in Jamaica.

The deal still has to be approved by a judge and the individual payment amounts have yet to be determined. Bull’s Eye has agreed to pay $2 million and Bushmaster will pay $500,000 under the settlement.

Victoria Snider, a sister of sniper victim James L. “Sonny” Buchanan, said some of the money might go to a charitable foundation called Sonny’s Kids, which was established to provide scholarships and other assistance to children.

“No amount of money can bring my brother back. I wish that was the case,” said Mrs. Snider, whose brother was killed while mowing grass at a Rockville car dealership.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were the relatives of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Buchanan, Premkumar Walekar, Sarah Ramos and Mrs. Franklin, all of whom were killed during the Washington-area sniper siege; Hong Im Ballenger, who was killed in Louisiana with the same rifle; and two survivors — Rupinder Oberoi, who was shot at a Hillandale beer store a month before the siege began, and Iran Brown, who was wounded outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie.

• Jim McElhatton contributed to this report.

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