Are Gun Owners Liable For Crimes Committed With Their Weapons? New Lawsuit Says ‘Yes’


School shooting at Chardon High School, Painesville, OH; photo courtesy of ToledoBlade

A very drunk David Huffman left Eddie’s Place in Charlotte, NC with a blood alcohol count almost three times the legal limit. He got in his car and, at more than 100 mph, smashed into another vehicle carrying Matt Eastridge and his six-month pregnant wife, Meredith. They lost their baby and were both hospitalized for over a month with extensive surgeries and therapy. Huffman, who was killed in the collision, had been served over ten drinks in a two-hour, ten-minute period at Eddie’s Place, which was later sued under the Dram-Shop law for serving a patron beyond the point of drunkenness. The Eastridges were awarded $1.7 million in damages. [Source]

Which makes a point about how far responsibility “trickles-down” when it comes to an act of violence perpetrated by one, but assisted, unwittingly or otherwise, by another. The Dram-Shop law holds bars and liquor stores in many states liable for damages caused by someone who is over-served or sold to; is it time for a similar law for those involved in gun-related deaths?

A lawsuit in Ohio is making the case that, yes, a gun owner who does not properly secure their weapon, or a family member responsible for a person who uses a gun for a crime, is liable for the damages caused by that person.

On February 27, 2012, a 17-year-old boy, T.J. Lane, brought his uncle’s .22 caliber pistol to Chardon High School in Painesville, OH, and shot and killed Daniel Parmertor, Russell King, Jr., and Demetrius Hewlin. Three other students were wounded. Lane pleaded guilty and is expected to serve a life term in prison. His family? They, along with him, are being sued by the families of the deceased boys. From Courthouse News Service:

The families of the three people he killed sued Lane, his natural parents, his grandparents – who are also his custodial guardians – and his uncle John Bruening, in Lake County Court of Common Pleas.? Lane was charged as an adult and “a juvenile court judge ruled that Lane was mentally competent despite evidence that he suffers from hallucinations, psychosis and fantasies,” according to CBS News.? The grieving families claim that Lane’s parents, grandparents and uncle failed to prevent the shooting, which is described in detail in the complaint. [… ]

The families seek compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful death, negligent supervision, parental statutory liability, and loss of consortium.

As in the Sandy Hook shooting, a young man known for emotional and mental problems somehow had access to guns owned by family members. Gun storage, therefore, becomes an issue front and center in the ongoing gun debate. In fact, one of President Obama’s 23 Executive Orders of January 16 included the following:

8. A review of safety standards for gun locks and safes (falling under the auspices of the Consumer Product Safety Commission).

The discussion of just how subsequent laws requiring the safe and secure storage of guns and ammunition will be enforced has begun to spur new legislation. The state of Washington, for example, has a new bill making its way through the legislative process that would give local sheriffs the right to enter the homes of assault weapon owners to ensure they “safely and securely store the assault weapon.” This, of course, has Second Amendmenters howling, convinced that jack-booted government thugs will be invading their homes on an annual basis to keep tabs on their artillery.

More rational minds, however, comprehend that some enforcement paradigm will be needed to effectively implement rules related to storage of weapons that others could have access to. And just as home inspectors come visiting to make sure a house remodel is up to code, or Child Protective Services pay calls to those fostering children, an annual check for storage compliance should not be that difficult to endure; nor does it imply nefarious purposes (though the paranoia of gun zealots is well documented).

But perhaps the greatest deterrent to gun owners chafing at the options for enforcing gun storage laws is the very real threat of being held liable for millions of dollars in damages if another person uses their weapon to kill or injure others. If this current lawsuit in Painesville, OH, sets precedence, it’s quite possible courts throughout the country will adjudicate that responsibility in ways, similar to the Dram-Shop law, that could hit hard the pocket of resisting – and responsible – gun owners.

Because let’s put this in perspective: Despite the fact that she did not pull the trigger, Nancy Lanza was the adult who purchased the weapons used at Sandy Hook and left them accessible to a son with severe emotional problems. However she stored those weapons, she did not store them securely and, as a result, 26 people, 20 of them children, lost their lives. If she had survived, should she have been held liable for those deaths?



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