INDIANAPOLIS (Legal Newsline) – A firearms dealer isn’t completely off the hook after it sold a gun that later was used against a police officer, but it has avoided paying compensation to an injured police officer, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled on April 24.
The case stems from a 2011 incident where Demetrious Martin, a felon who couldn’t legally purchase or own a firearm went into KS&E Sports with Tarus Blackburn. Martin and Blackburn looked at the firearm available for purchase, and Martin identified for Blackburn at Smith & Wesson handgun he liked. Later that same day, Blackburn returned to the store, alone, and purchased the gun Martin had identified for $325.
Blackburn then left the store, and sold the same gun to Martin, while still in the parking lot, for $375. Two months passed before Martin, who is now deceased, used that same Smith & Wesson handgun to shoot an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer during a traffic stop. Officer Dwayne Runnels, the plaintiff in the suit, pulled over a car matching the description of a vehicle connected to a robbery and shooting.
Martin, the driver, exited the car, and used the Smith & Wesson that originated from KS&E Sports to fire two rounds at Runnels, striking him in the hip. Runnels returned fire, killing Martin. Runnels, the plaintiff in the suit, alleges that as a result of the shooting he suffered both physical and financial damages.
Runnels sought to hold KS&E liable for selling the gun to Martin through a third party. The practice of using a “straw man” is well-known in the industry, and is a common ploy for criminals attempting to purchase firearms from firearms dealers.
In his complaint, Runnels alleged that it was a lack of proper training and adherence to industry standards that allowed the Smith & Wesson handgun to be purchased by Blackburn and then transferred to Martin without leaving the store’s property.
In writing the opinion of the court, Justice Geoffrey G. Slaughter noted that Indiana law prevents firearms dealers from being held financially liable for damages that follow the criminal or unlawful use of a firearm by a third party. In this case, Martin, who did not purchase the firearm himself, was the third party. In that vein, the court dismissed all requests for damages were dismissed.
The court did find however, that the plaintiff’s claims that did not seek financial damages, specifically the public nuisance claim, survived the immunity statute and were not dismissed. In writing the opinion court, Justice Slaughter stated “We conclude it would be premature on this record to dismiss all of Runnels’ claims. Although the immunity statute applies, we cannot say there are no circumstances under which Runnels could obtain relief.”
There was some disagreement between the justices, prompting Justice Robert D. Rucker to partially dissent. He was joined by Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush in dissent. While Rucker concurs concerning the immunity statute, his opinion on the legislative intent differs substantially.
“I part company with my colleagues on their expansive reading of the statute,” wrote Rucker, before relating a hypothetical situation wherein a firearms dealer sells a firearm to a man who is joined by his non-eligible criminal friend in the store. “In the majority’s view the gun store would be immune from civil liability…I am not persuaded…It appears to me the statute was designed to protect innocent and unknowing gun sellers from the acts of third parties.”
Runnels' public nuisance claim alleges that KS&E caused or created an unreasonable interference with the public’s health or safety among other things, and therefore constitutes a public nuisance. The original complaint also alleges that KS&E failed to, and continues to fail to provide adequate employee training to minimize the risk of firearms being sold to criminals through a third party.
According to the complaint filed by Runnels, between 1996 and 2000, there were more than 500 guns used in and recovered from crimes that were originally sold by KS&E. making it “the 34th top crime-gun seller in the nation” during that period.
In the end, the immunity statute fails to protect the firearms dealer from the public nuisance claim, which instead of seeking damages, seeks only equitable relief. With the other counts dismissed, the case will proceed solely to determine whether or not Runnels’ public nuisance argument will prevail against the gun dealer.