Law & the Courts

Anti-Gun Activists Lead a Couple to Ruin

Lonnie and Sandy Phillips in a 2012 Brady Campaign video (via YouTube)
The Brady Campaign told an Aurora shooting victim’s parents to file a hopeless suit against a gun dealer. The result was bankruptcy.

In 2012, Jessica Ghawi was murdered by James Holmes during a showing of The Dark Knight. She was one of twelve victims who died that day. In the aftermath, Ghawi’s mother, Sandy, filed a lawsuit against Lucky Gunner, the business that sold Holmes his weapons. Last week, Mother Jones ran a story on Phillips, who complained bitterly that her case had been thrown out:

Working for the Brady Campaign became a flurry of media appearances and meetings with politicians, police, and survivors. The Brady leadership also encouraged Lonnie and me to sue Lucky Gunner, the dealer that sold the stockpile of ammo to Jessi’s killer. We agreed that dealers should have to take some responsibility. Shouldn’t they have to vet a buyer of military-grade weaponry? Or a buyer of bullets en masse? The primary goal of our lawsuit was to make the gun dealer change its business practices — at a minimum, to ask for proof of identity and do a background check.

The case would go on for three months, yet we never met the judge and never saw a courtroom. When the judge dismissed the suit, he said, “It is apparent that this case was filed to pursue the political purposes of the Brady Center.” In my opinion, the law that protects the gun dealers also bars people like us from our constitutional right to be heard.

It’s impossible to imagine the pain of a parent who has lost a child, so one cannot blame Phillips for attempting to channel her grief in this way. But what, one wonders, is the excuse of the Brady Campaign, which gave Phillips the idea, and told her erroneously that she had a shot? Clearly, everything that Lucky Gunner did was legal. Moreover, had the judge ruled against the store, he would have effectively been changing the law. A decision that found a gun dealer responsible for the actions of a third party would open the floodgates for similar lawsuits around the country. Of course the suit ended this way; it had to.

Phillips’s lawsuit was dismissed under the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was meant to protect the firearms industry from politically motivated lawsuits in which the plaintiffs claim that gun manufacturers and dealers were responsible for the criminal acts of third parties beyond their control. And rightly so. As the recent campaign of Hillary Clinton shows, there is a concerted attempt underway in this country to usher gun control in by the back door and turn innocent people into criminals. Lucky Gunner was no more responsible for the actions of James Holmes than Honda was for the actions of Abdul Razak Ali Artan when he attempted to use his Civic to kill pedestrians at Ohio State University, and it no more deserves punishment. There are already consumer protections that make gun manufacturers liable in rare cases when their products malfunction. Naturally, they do not apply to misuse.

Sadly for Phillips and her husband, by acting on the Brady Campaign’s advice to file suit against the store, they have seriously damaged their own finances. After they sold their home and belongings in Texas to attend Holmes’s trial in Colorado — and then to travel around the country in a camper to advocate more gun control — their frivolous lawsuit finished them off. In throwing out the case, the judge ordered the family to pay Lucky Gunner’s legal fees — which totaled more than $200,000. Harsh as it may sound, this was fair and correct decision considering the underlying facts and the lack of any substance in the case.

And where is the Brady Campaign in all this? After all, it was Brady that recklessly encouraged the Phillipses to file a lawsuit that Brady almost certainly knew would get dismissed. It was Brady that knew the judge would likely order the Phillipses to pay Lucky Gunner’s legal expenses. Why, one must ask, aren’t they stepping up to help with the legal fees that the Phillipses have incurred on their behalf? The Brady Campaign took in $25 million in revenues in 2014 and 2015. Surely they can write a check for $200,000 and save the Phillipses from the indignity of going bankrupt?

Why, one must ask, isn’t the Brady Campaign stepping up to help with the legal fees that the Phillipses have incurred on their behalf?

Alas, one can see Brady’s fingerprints all over this story — right down to the language that Phillips uses when discussing her preferred public policy. Pace Phillips, the rifle Holmes used is not “military-grade”; it is a semi-automatic rifle that requires squeezing the trigger for each shot. Buying ammunition in bulk is not unusual; as with any commodity, its prices fluctuate, and people who enjoy shooting for sport buy “en masse” when prices are favorable. As for the complaint that gun stores must “vet” a buyer, the store did just that, as both federal and state law require, and Holmes passed it.

For practical purposes, the Brady Campaign should pay the legal costs. For political purposes, it’s better for them if they do not. What better way for Brady to play up the martyr angle for the Phillipses than by decrying the gun dealer who “bankrupted” them for wanting said dealer to take some “responsibility” for their actions? In the long run, that’s a much better story for the Brady Campaign to weave than paying the legal costs associated with a failed lawsuit they encouraged.

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