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Gun-Violence Victims Can't Receive Monetary Damages From Indiana Gun Stores

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled last month that victims of gun violence cannot get monetary damages from a gun retailer, even if that store sold the firearms illegally.

This decision follows former Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer Dwayne Runnels suit against KS&E Sports in Indianapolis claiming the business illegally sold the weapon used to wound him.

Runnel was shot with a weapon purchased by Tarus E. Blackburn in December 2011. Blackburn, who acted as a straw purchaser, bought a Smith & Wesson .40 S&W handgun and sold it to Demetrious Martin for $50, a convicted felon who could not legally purchase or possess a firearm.

Martin later shot and wounded Runnels. Martin was subsequently killed.

Indiana law states that gun sellers can’t be sued for monetary damages, and in a 3-2 decision the state’s Supreme Court agreed, and largely upheld lower-court opinions. The court dismissed the bulk of Officer Runnel’s lawsuit.

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey G. Slaughter

Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, a Crown Point native, in writing for the court, said that the state statute is “clear” and “unambiguous.” Moreover, the court found that the legislature in the Hoosier State did not limit a gun seller’s immunity from monetary claims only to lawful sales.

“On its face, this provision forecloses damages claims when a third party’s misuse of a firearm injures the plaintiff,” Slaughter said as reported by NWI Times. “Nothing in the statute limits its application to situations where a third party obtained the firearm, directly or indirectly, from a lawful sale.”

Slaughter further noted that the federal government, as well as other states including Colorado, deny gun sellers immunity from financial damages when the retailer in question knowingly sells a firearm in violation of federal or state law. This could include though such actions as the use of a straw buyer.

Those passages, which reflect a clear legislative judgment that subject firearms sellers who violate the law to tort liability are notably absent from Indiana’s statue, Slaughter added.

Justice Robert Pucker, a Gary native, dissented from the court’s decision and was joined in the opinion of Chief Justice Loretta Rush. Rucker said that the lawmakers did not intend to immunize gun retailers under all possible circumstances — notably such as if a purchaser were to suggest that a weapon might be used in a shooting spree and then goes onto to commit such a violent act.

“It appears to me the statute was designed to protect innocent and unknowing gun sellers from the acts of third parties,” Rucker said as also reported by the NWI Times. “The legislature could not have intended to protect gun sellers from their own illegal acts.”

One part of Runnels’ case did survive — the part that seeks what is called “equitable relief,” or a solution that doesn’t involve monetary claims. Runnel claimed the gun shop is a public nuisance and seeks a judicial remedy to prevent it from selling firearms until it can retrain employees to minimize the risk of illegal sales.

— By Peter Suciu, Texas & U.S. Law Shield blog contributor

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