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Gun store argues no liability for straw sale linked to officer’s shooting

August 31, 2016

Lawyers for a gun store sued for making an illegal straw sale of a firearm that was used to shoot an Indianapolis police officer argued Wednesday that Indiana gun sellers are shielded from civil lawsuits even when they break the law.

“The General Assembly made that decision. It drew that bright line because it wanted to reach that legislative goal,” argued Chicago attorney James Vogts, who represents the National Shooting Sports Foundation. That group is a friend of the court supporting the KS&E Guns store in defense of a lawsuit brought by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer Dwayne Runnels.

Vogts told justices shielding gun sellers and manufacturers was “a policy decision (the General Assembly) had the authority to make, they had to the right to make, and they did make it.”

Runnels’ civil case to date far has survived KS&E’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, in which its primary defense was Indiana Code 34-12-3-3(2). Passed in 2004, the immunity statute aimed to shield gunmakers and sellers from civil liability. But the majority of an Indiana Court of Appeals panel ruled in Runnels’ favor in March, holding the law doesn’t provide immunity to gunmakers or sellers from lawsuits resulting from their own unlawful acts.

The statute “must be construed the way the Court of Appeals construed it,” argued Jonathan Lowy of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C., who represented Runnels. Lowy told justices that reading the statute as KS&E suggests to shield gun dealers from liability for criminal acts would produce an absurd result, derogate common law, overturn 130 years of precedent, and potentially deprive Runnels of his constitutional rights. He said under KS&E’s reading, gun sellers would be protected “even if their business model is supplying guns to criminals.”

Runnels was shot in 2011 by Demetrious Martin, a suspect in a shooting and robbery. Runnels returned fire, killing Martin, whose gun was traced to its purchase from KS&E Guns in Indianapolis a couple months prior.

A felon, Martin could not have purchased the gun, but KS&E sold it to Tarus Blackburn after he and Martin visited the store together, where Martin told store personnel it was the weapon he wanted. Blackburn later bought the gun and sold it to Martin for a $50 markup in the store parking lot. Blackburn later pleaded guilty to falsifying documents to buy the gun.

Runnels’ case has drawn the amicus support of police chiefs, police unions, and the city of Gary.

Justices Steven David and Robert Rucker provided extreme scenarios, such as a gun dealer knowingly selling firearms to someone supplying a terrorist or a person intent on carrying out mayhem. Rucker used the example of a school shooting during the argument that served as an educational program for about 60 teachers from around the state. They pressed Christopher Renzulli, who also argued for KS&E, on whether a gun seller in such cases would ever face civil liability under KS&E’s reading of the law.

Such scenarios represented the “ultimate extreme,” Renzulli said, acknowledging his client’s position there would be “no exception” in the immunity statute even if a gun sale was illegal.

“The plain language of the statute requires immediate dismissal of this case,” Renzulli said. He said to read the statute otherwise would “eviscerate” its purpose.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush focused on other charges in Runnels’ complaint, such as nuisance and conspiracy, implying these should not be read out of immunity statute. Justices Mark Massa and Geoffrey Slaughter raised the most questions for Runnels’ counsel, Lowy.

Massa said Runnels doesn’t have a claim for damages until the gun is criminally misused and the law says a person cannot maintain an action against a gunmaker or seller. “How is that not clear?” Massa said.

Lowy said actions for the criminal actions of a seller aren’t specifically barred, and reading the law so would raise “serious constitutional issues” for victims such as Runnels.

Wednesday’s oral argument in KS&E Sports, et al. v. Dwayne H. Runnels, 49S02-1606-CT-00349, may be viewed here.

Read more about this case in the Sept. 7 Indiana Lawyer.

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