Shot Cops Seek Sue Gunmaker, Dealer

Nov. 15, 2002 -- It was a man named Shuntez Everett who shot Orange, N.J., policemen David Lemongello and Kenneth McGuire one night at a gas station, but the two cops say a West Virginia gun dealer and the company that made the 9-mm semiautomatic used in the crime share the blame.

Lemongello and McGuire filed suit Thursday in Kanawha Circuit Court in Charleston, W. Va., seeking damages from a West Virginia pawnshop, Will's Jewelry and Loan, and from the the pistol's manufacturer, Sturm, Ruger and Co.

Also named as defendants are gun traffickers James Gray and Tammi Lea Songer, and the estate of the gunman, Everett, who was killed in the shootout that left the two policemen critically wounded.

The suit alleges that neither Will's Jewelry and Loan nor Sturm, Ruger exercised the controls that are required by law in gun transactions, which allowed the weapon to get into Everett's possession.

"Gun manufacturers and gun dealers have known for years that gun trafficking and multiple sales of firearms supply the criminal gun market," said Jonathan Lowy, a senior attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence's Legal Action Project, which is representing the two policemen.

"They have the ability to stop the flow of guns to criminals, yet they do nothing," he added. "They must be made to realize that their irresponsible conduct has very real consequences — in this case, the shooting of two police officers."

Gun-Maker Immunity?

The suit came the same day a similar suit had success in Florida, where a jury ordered a gun distributor to pay $1.2 million to the widow of Barry Grunow, a teacher who was shot and killed by his student, 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill, in 2000. Pam Grunow claimed the cheap pistols distributed by Valor Corp. often fall into the hands of juveniles and criminals.

The verdict and the new suit are the sorts of cases recently targeted by the National Rifle Association, which is lobbying for federal legislation banning lawsuits by shooting victims against the dealers who sold the weapon used in the shooting, or against the company that manufactured the gun.

There are bills in the House, sponsored by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., and in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., to ban suits against gun makers and dealers.

"This legislation would give the gun industry immunity that's not given any other industry in America," Lowy said. "It's extraordinary that an industry that makes weapons used to kill people would be granted this kind of protection."

Stearns' and Miller's offices did not return calls for comment.

The question of how well gun dealers keep track of their merchandise and regulate sales has also arisen in the investigation into the sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area. After the rifle used in the shootings was traced to a gun shop in Tacoma, Wash., Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents investigating said that some 300 guns that had been shipped to the store were unaccounted for.

The store owner disputed the results of the ATF inventory, and said the .223-caliber rifle used in the shooting appeared to have been stolen.

Buying 12 Guns at a Time

Lemongello and McGuire were shot by Everett, a convicted felon, on Jan. 12, 2001, during an undercover surveillance operation at a gas station that had been repeatedly robbed. Both were forced to leave the police force because of the injuries they suffered, Lowy said.

Investigators tracked the Ruger 9-mm semiautomatic used in the shooting to Will's Jewelry and Loans, in South Charleston, W.Va., where it was one of numerous guns bought for a convicted felon named James Gray by a West Virginia woman named Tammi Lea Songer, according to the suit.

In just one month, Gray had Songer, who had no criminal record, buy 22 guns in three visits to the store, and Gray turned around and sold those guns on the black market to felons who could not otherwise get them, the suit said.

The Ruger was one of 12 guns that Songer bought for Gray on July 20, 2000. According to the lawsuit, personnel at Will's were suspicious enough about the multiple purchases to notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — but only after the transaction was completed.

The manager at Will's Jewelry and Loan, Ernie Barger, referred questions about the suit to the store's lawyer.

The attorney, Mark Sadd, told that he had not yet seen a copy of the suit, and could not comment.

A spokesman for Sturm, Ruger did not respond to a telephone call for comment.

The suit charges the gun dealer with negligence for allegedly consummating a large-volume sale of guns that it must have known were headed for the illegal market.

The suit also charges gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger with negligence, accusing the gun maker of failing to enforce a code of conduct that would require its dealers to spot and prevent straw sales and that would prevent its dealers from engaging in large-volume sales.