In a verdict that could prefigure a political alliance between police unions and advocates of new restrictions on private firearms ownership, a federal jury in Wisconsin has ordered Milwaukee-based Badger Guns to pay nearly $6 million to two police officers who suffered severe injuries after being shot with a gun purchased at the store.
This unprecedented civil award will encourage efforts to hold gun retailers – and, perhaps, firearms manufacturers – civilly liable for crimes committed by other people. It also reinforces the prevailing (and factually impoverished) narrative of an ever-escalating “war on cops.” Ten additional lawsuits similar to the one filed against Badger Guns are working their way through the courts.
Officers Bryan Norberg and Graham Kunich were both shot in the face by Julius Burton during an altercation in the Summer of 2009. The officers, who arrived in a police van, detained the 18-year-old Burton for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. A struggle broke out during which Burton was slammed into a wall. He then pulled a .40 caliber Taurus pistol and shot both officers in the face.
Norberg, who suffered several shattered teeth and an injury to his shoulder, remains on the force. Kunisch lost his left eye and part of the left frontal lobe of his brain and was forced to retire. Burton, who pleaded guilty to first degree attempted homicide while armed, was sentenced to eighty years plus twenty years of “extended supervision.” Jacob Collins, who acted as the “straw buyer” by purchasing the handgun with $40 provided by Burton, was sentenced to two years in prison.
Although he had received mental health treatment since the age of seven, and had a “diagnostic history” of schizophrenia, Burton was not taking his medication at the time of his encounter with the officers. During his sentencing hearing, Burton – who was chained to a wheelchair — said that he had bought the gun for self-protection, and that he shot the officers out of fear for his life.
For a police officer endowed with “qualified immunity,” that claim is generally enough to justify the use of deadly force. In this case, the best Burton could do was a proposed deal in which he would plead guilty in exchange for a fifty-year prison sentence. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Patricia McMahon, unsatisfied with the deal, imposed an additional thirty years, making the punishment an effective life sentence. Her ruling prompted cheers from dozens of uniformed police officers in the audience, including Chief Ed Flynn.
Stringent limits on liability are imposed by the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). In the Milwaukee trial, however, the jury apparently set aside those limits. Instead, they accepted the argument made by the plaintiffs’ attorney, Patrick Dunphy, that it was not necessary to prove that the clerk “willfully” sold the gun to a straw buyer. All that was required was that ten of the twelve jurors to conclude that he was “negligent” in not discerning what were supposedly “tell-tale signs” that the transaction was illegal. Norberg was $1.5 million in damages, and Kunisch $3.5 million. Badger Guns was also ordered to pay $730,000 in punitive damages.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for the repeal of the PLCAA as part of a comprehensive plan for new restrictions on firearms sales and ownership. Her long-time political ally Rahm Emanuel, currently the embattled Mayor of Chicago, presides over a city that has some of the most restrictive firearms laws in the country – and one of the highest rates of gun-related violent crime, as well.
Not having the luxury of blaming guns for his city’s violent crime rate, Mayor Emanuel has placed the blame on a different inanimate object: the cellphone camera. According to the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel blames what he has called the “YouTube Effect” – independent journalism that chronicles and publicizes police abuse through social media – for turning his once-fearsome police force into a timid, “fetal” creature.
“We have allowed our Police Department to get fetal, and it is having a direct consequence. They have pulled back from the ability to interdict … they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact,” Emanuel said during a meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch.Alluding to unrest that has convulsed Ferguson and Baltimore in the wake of controversial episodes of lethal force by police, Emanuel claimed that police have grown tentative and leery of having their actions put “under the microscope.”
“Officers themselves are telling me about how the news over the last 15 months impacted their instincts: Do they stop or do they keep driving?” Emanuel declared in a separate press conference. “When I stop here, is it going to be my career on the line? And that’s an honest conversation.”
Despite his impeccable credentials as a liberal Democrat, Emanuel in this instance recited talking points favored by “law-and-order conservatives,” who condemn police accountability activists as the propaganda arm of the purported “war on police.” Burton’s criminal conviction would be applauded by the same conservative cohort who would regard Officers Norberg and Kunisch as wounded heroes. But would those conservatives, who are for the most part fiercely devoted to the right to keep and bear arms, also applaud the civil judgment against Badger Guns?
The verdict in the Badger Guns lawsuit creates a real predicament for “law and order conservatives” – one that may possibly deepen. Police unions and related pressure groups who regard “officer safety” as the highest public priority – what could be referred to as the “Blue Privilege Lobby” – could find themselves allied with advocates of new restrictions on individual firearms ownership.