A successful lawsuit against a gun store in Milwaukee is bringing hope to Chicago anti-violence activists, who say they want gun dealers in their area to “wake up” and do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
In a first, a jury decided Tuesday to hold a gun shop in Milwaukee liable for two police officers left permanently scarred on June 9, 2009 after a man shot them in the face during a stop. The shooter fired a gun purchased at Badger Guns on his behalf by another man — a straw purchase, since the shooter wasn’t old enough to buy one himself, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The jury awarded $6 million to the officers.
In Chicago, a coalition of gun control advocates is trying a different tactic. Chicagoans for Safer Communities in July brought a civil rights suit against suburban towns where, they allege, lax oversight by local authorities allows people to buy guns that are later used in violent crimes in the city.
“From the perspective of the plaintiffs, we think the Milwaukee verdict is a very good development,” said Tom Geoghegan, one of the lawyers for Chicagoans for Safer Communities. “There is a growing concern in the country about straw purchases from gun shops and the way gun shops are facilitating the illegal trafficking in guns. This is a nation of laws, and we should stop it,” he told Al Jazeera.
So far in 2015, there have been 399 homicides in Chicago, according to a tally maintained by The Chicago Tribune. September, with 62 killings, had the most homicides in the year to date. In all of 2014, Chicago counted 435 homicides.
Since homicide victims in Chicago are disproportionately African-American, the suit employs the language of the 2003 Illinois Civil Rights Act, which prohibits authorities from “methods of administration” that discriminate based on race. Gun violence affects African-Americans, the lawsuit argues, by serving to “stigmatize them and isolate their neighborhoods racially and economically and that accordingly have the effect of discriminating against them because of race.”
Pam Bosley, whose son Terrell was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2006, is a plaintiff in the case against the three suburban towns: Riverdale, Lyons and Lincolnwood.
She told Al Jazeera that the Milwaukee verdict represents a step in the right direction. “It makes me feel good,” she said. “I’m hoping that with our lawsuit we can have those three villages come together and regulate their guns sales. I’m hoping it will this will wake up those gun stores.”
None of the towns named as defendants in the suit replied to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
The lawsuit calls on the suburban municipalities to do more to make sure that gun stores are following proper procedures under state and federal law, including how to sniff out straw purchasers.
“Some dealers are willing to look the other way and make sales even when they suspect the buyer is a straw purchaser for illegal users or minors,” the lawsuit alleges. It cites a city of Chicago report indicating that thousands of guns recovered by Chicago police originate from just a few shops outside city limits: Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, Midwest Sporting Goods in Lyons and Shore Galleries in Lincolnwood.
Between 2009 and 2013, Chicago police said they traced 1,500 confiscated guns back to Chuck's alone, in a 2014 report “Tracing Guns: The Impact of Illegal Guns on Violence in Chicago,” cited by the suit.
The three gun stores declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Lawsuits against gun stores are rare, said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel for gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, because of a 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which restricts to very narrow circumstances when a gun dealer can be sued by victims. The victims have to prove that the dealer failed to follow the law.
Skaggs said that the Milwaukee case likely won’t have that much direct impact on Chicago’s, since one targeted a dealer and the other goes after governments.
The lawsuit comes amid a larger nationwide debate on gun rights and laws. Both sides often cite Chicago in their arguments, with gun supporters saying Chicago's laws against gun ownership do nothing to stop violence, and gun control advocates blaming the flow of illegal guns from neighboring states with laxer laws.