What is a ‘gun found at crime scene’?

(A version of this column appears in the Dec. 10 edition of “Shotgun News.”)

In October, jurors ordered a Wisconsin gun store to pay nearly $6 million in damages in a lawsuit filed by two Milwaukee police officers who were shot and seriously wounded by a gun purchased at the store, The Associated Press reports.

The ruling came in a negligence lawsuit filed by the officers against Badger Guns, a shop in suburban Milwaukee which — according to the AP story — “authorities have linked to hundreds of firearms found at crime scenes.” The lawsuit argued the shop ignored several warning signs that the gun used to shoot the officers was being sold to a so-called straw buyer who was illegally purchasing the weapon for someone else.

Officer Bryan Norberg and former Officer Graham Kunisch were both shot in the face after they stopped Julius Burton, 19, for riding his bike on the sidewalk in the summer of 2009. Investigators said Burton got the weapon, a Taurus .40-caliber handgun, a month earlier “after giving $40 to another man, Jacob Collins, to make the purchase at the store in West Milwaukee,” reports the AP’s Greg Moore, who graduated Wayne State University in downtown Detroit and joined The AP in 2011.

One bullet shattered eight of Norberg’s teeth, blew through his cheek and lodged in his shoulder. He remains on the force. Kunisch was shot several times, lost an eye and part of the frontal lobe of his brain. His wounds forced him to retire.

Jurors, understandably sympathetic to the shooting victims, ordered the store to pay Norberg $1.5 million, Kunisch $3.6 million, and punitive damages of $730,000. The officers’ lawyer said he anticipates years of appeals.

The case gained national attention when presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said she’d push to repeal the law that Badger Guns’ lawyers said shielded the store from such claims.

Authorities have said more than 500 firearms “recovered from crime scenes” had been traced back to Badger Guns and Badger Outdoors, making it the “No. 1 crime gun dealer in America,” according to a 2005 charging document from an unrelated case. Norberg and Kunisch cited that detail in their lawsuit, saying it showed a history of negligence.

Damages unlikely to stand

“Burton pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree attempted intentional homicide and is serving an 80-year sentence,” Moore of The AP reports. “Collins, the man who purchased the gun, got a two-year sentence after pleading guilty to making a straw purchase for an underage buyer.”

Where to begin? No, crazy young men should not be shooting police officers -– officers who had not even seen a need to draw their own weapons — while being stopped for a minor infraction. Putting this deranged perpetrator away for 80 years (given the way our parole and probation system work) probably makes sense, if he can’t be executed.

But if the shooter had to find someone else to make a “straw purchase” for him, that means he knew it was illegal for him to obtain the weapon on his own — he probably would have been turned down based on his history of psychiatric treatment, even if he weren’t underage. Right?

Burton “gave $40 to another man” to buy him the Taurus pistol? Quite a bargain. In fact, that pistol lists at about $300, plus tax. Does the reporter mean Burton “gave Collins the $320 purchase price, plus an additional $40”? Why would a reporter want to make it sound like such weapons can be bought for $40?

And let’s not fail to note that the law against serving a “straw man purchaser” creates a “thought crime.” What Jacob Collins went to jail for was legally buying a gun while intending to deliver it to someone else. If I buy a gun intending to make it part of my personal collection, but then get tired of it or see a chance to make a profit and so give it away or sell it to someone else two years later — a private sale without any “background check” — that’s perfectly legal. Six months after I buy it? Perfectly legal. Two months later? I’m probably OK. Six days after I buy it? It could now be up to a judge and a prosecutor and possibly a jury stacked through “voir dire” questioning to decide whether I “harbored the thought” of transferring it to someone else on the day I signed the “yellow form.” I could go to prison based on what they think I thought.

If this doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it’s probably because you’ve never bought a gun. But buying booze for someone else is also illegal. Ever take a bottle of wine to someone else’s house? Are you sure they didn’t later give a glass to anyone under 18? Look up Martin Niemoller.

The federal law referred to — the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which bars victims of the criminal use of guns from suing manufacturers and gun dealers whose legal products work as they’re supposed to — is still in effect. As socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, who voted for the measure, told CNN earlier this year: “If somebody has a gun and it falls into the hands of a murderer and that murderer kills somebody with the gun do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible? Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beat somebody over the head with a hammer.”

So what are the chances the appeals court will throw out these damages? Or, should they be upheld, what are the chances the families of innocent Americans shot by police officers can now successfully sue the outfits that sold those cops their guns and ammo, since they “should have known full well that cops often use their weapons to shoot innocent, unarmed persons”?

I wonder how all the cops who crowded that Milwaukee courtroom in October and applauded this damage award would react if told “Sorry, following the deaths of John Geer of Springfield, Va. — shot by police while standing in the doorway to his own home, scratching his nose — and 50-year-old Walter Scott of North Charleston, S.C. — shot in the back as he ran away from North Charleston Patrolman Michael Slager — none of our former suppliers will sell us any more ammo, ladies and gentlemen. So let’s get out those old wooden batons and keep them handy.”

Who’s dropping all these expensive guns?

While we’re at it, let’s also deconstruct that favorite “firearms found at crime scenes” statistic. Does that generally refer to incidents where a street gang armed with machine guns massacres a couple police officers, and then — while speeding away — drops one of their fully automatic AK-47s so it can later be “found at the crime scene”? No. This is a term of art which usually refers either to a suicide gun or a self-defense revolver found in the bedroom drawer of a house where someone was just busted for “domestic abuse” or “possession of marijuana” – someone who never thought of going for that self-defense tool to use it against police, or anyone else.

“Weapons found at crime scenes” generally do not belong to habitual criminals. As John Lott — former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission and author of “More Guns, Less Crime” — wrote in the Wall Street Journal of Jan. 17, 2013, “Guns are very rarely left behind at a crime scene. When they are, they’re usually stolen or unregistered. Criminals are not stupid enough to leave behind guns that are registered to them. Even in the few cases where registered guns are left at crime scenes, it is usually because the criminal has been seriously injured or killed, so these crimes would have been solved even without registration.”

Now that you know what a “weapon found at a crime scene” usually refers to, do you think a popular gun shop that’s sold a number of firearms later “found at crime scenes” –- sales completed only after performing the legally required background checks — has necessarily done anything wrong? Or do you think a news outlet parroting that term without explanation is trying to prejudice you against the specific business in question, or against gun stores in general?

After reading the initial news stories, did you think this gun shop should be closed down? You did, didn’t you? What if I told you the biggest Chevy dealer in Milwaukee sold “most of the cars that were involved in hit-and-run accidents in Milwaukee in recent years”? (I made that up, by the way; I have no idea.) Would you conclude that specific Chevy dealer should be shut down? Why not? Because, perhaps, you think the drivers were responsible; that every American adult is going to get a car somewhere — that no irresponsible driver is going to be better behaved just because they buy a Ford or a Toyota; that the statistic only reflects the fact that my hypothetical Chevy dealer sells more cars locally than anyone else, that it’s not the fault of a car dealership if some tiny fraction of their customers use those automobiles in an irresponsible way?

I wish I had better advice to offer on how we should deal with the people who we describe with the imperfect metaphor “mentally ill” –- people who (for better or worse) have been increasingly “mainstreamed” out onto our sidewalks over the past 40 years. I certainly don’t think the “boot camp” atmosphere of our mandatory youth propaganda camps (some still call them “public schools”) — where the disciplining of misfits is increasingly administered by locker-room gang chieftains, as in the old Red Army — has helped.

What this case really exposes, I fear, is that all this “background check” rigmarole inconveniences millions of Americans who have an uncontestable right to own and carry a firearm, without doing much to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics and bad guys — any more than our airport metal detectors (the ones designed to accustom law-abiding Americans to being strip-searched and disarmed) did anything to stop a bunch of Muslim fanatics from hijacking four passenger jets and killing thousands of innocent people on Sept. 11, 2001.

Yet we keep trying “more of the same.”

Vin Suprynowicz, a former award-winning editorial writer and columnist for the daily Las Vegas Review-Journal, is the author of “Send in the Waco Killers” and “The Ballad of Carl Drega.” His new novel about the War on Drugs, “The Miskatonic Manuscript,” is due out this month.

5 Comments to “What is a ‘gun found at crime scene’?”

  1. Gordon Gartrell Says:

    Good one, Vin. Don’t forget all the criminals whose sentences are enhanced by Federal Judges for using a firearm in furtherance of their crimes, even though the firearm in question was in the back closet of a house during a drug deal at the front door, or even just locked away inside the house when the perp was arrested. This issue doesn’t even get a jury question… the judge himself can add it. Please correct me if my facts are wrong here.

  2. MamaLiberty Says:

    One of the key problems here is the utterly false belief of so many people that crimes can and must be prevented from happening, whatever it takes. The other problem being that they believe that the involuntary government has actual authority to even attempt it, however unsuccessful it turns out to be. So, faith in government “authority” and ability, along with the wishful thinking that a risk free life is possible, and you have the mindset of the average uninformed person to contend with.

    I don’t have links, or specific statistics, but I think it is safe to conclude that people are actually at less risk from the truly “mentally ill” than they are from police activity in general. http://godfatherpolitics.com/9386/police-shoot-innocents-the-media-doesnt-seem-to-care-much/

    “Knew or should have known” is a very dangerously ambivalent requirement. Demanding that merchants mind read or second guess the intentions of anyone “by law” is a sure path to ever more tyranny.

  3. Carl "Bear" Bussjaeger Says:

    By chance, I happened upon this article today:

    Lyons ordinance a model for commonsense gun laws
    “Village gun shops must maintain electronic records, including a ‘do not sell’ list of people who bought guns that were recovered at crime scenes.”

  4. MamaLiberty Says:

    So helpful with the time span between original purchase and a “crime” use something like 13 – 15 years. Very helpful information. Not that it matters in any other way, of course.

  5. RRND - 12/03/15 - Thomas L. Knapp - Liberty.me Says:

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