How a recent Indiana Supreme Court ruling strengthens gun shop protections

By Ashley Shuler
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – When walking into Beech Grove Firearms on the city’s southeast side, barrels stand ready, pointing through the glass cases.

The guns, attached to wood pegs so they lay upright and have handwritten price tags hanging off, are both powerful and somehow homey in numbers.

Rifles line the walls at Beech Grove Firearms. The ruling says that gun dealers can’t be sued for injuries or other damages caused by firearms they sell—even if they were part of an illegal or straw purchase. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

The shop is standard, with walls of rifles hanging behind the cases—maybe more if they were located in a rural, hunting-friendly county—and a wooden, kitschy top 10 reasons men prefer guns over women—“you can trade in an old 44 for a new 22”—sign hanging near the counter.

Husband and wife Greg and Michelle Burge opened Beech Grove Firearms nearly 10 years ago. Michelle Burge covers the day shift and Greg Burge nights as he works days at another job. The rest of the stocking, ordering and customer service work at the small operation is covered by eight employees, all friends and family of the Burges.

Last week, the Indiana Supreme Court in a 3-2 decision ruled Indiana gun dealers like the Burges are immune to being sued for damages if a gun they sell is used to injure someone, even if the gun was sold illegally.

Before this case, Indiana law said a person couldn’t sue a firearm dealer for damages resulting from the criminal use of a firearm by a third party.

“This statue is unambiguous,” Indiana Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote in an opinion following the April 24 ruling. “By its plain terms, the statute immunizes a firearms seller from a damages suit for injustice caused by another person’s misuse.”

Robert Brookins, who teaches tort law Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said the law was designed to protect gun shop owners acting within the law, so they can’t be held liable for damages caused by that gun once it leaves their doors.

“If he sells that gun legally, and that gun is used to kill someone, multiple people, or even the man himself, I don’t know of any state in this great union that would hold a gun shop liable for that,” Brookins said.

But following the ruling, the law now not only applies to firearms sold lawfully, but also to those sold unlawfully. That means people suing gun shops for damages can’t get a dime civilly for selling a gun illegally that’s used to harm someone. Yet, under the ruling, owners or employees could still face criminal charges for knowing about an illegal gun sale.

The ruling came in the case brought by wounded Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officer Dwayne Runnels against KS&E Sports, a gun shop on the east side of Indianapolis.

In October 2011, Demetrious Martin, a convicted felon who couldn’t legally purchase or possess a firearm, and Tarus Blackburn went into KS&E to browse the selection.

Martin had his eye on a Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun. In front of Blackburn and a KS&E employee, Martin identified that gun as one he liked. The two customers eventually left the store without making a purchase, according to the case history laid out in the Supreme Court ruling.

Later that same day, Blackburn returned to KS&E and bought that Smith & Wesson handgun Martin had liked for $325, filling out the paperwork as the owner. Outside in the shop’s parking lot, Blackburn turned around and sold the gun to Martin for $375.

Two months after Martin got his hands on that .40-caliber handgun, in December 2011, Runnels pulled him over during a traffic stop. Runnels had recognized Martin’s maroon Chevrolet Impala as matching a description of a vehicle connected to a recent armed robbery and shooting.

As the officer approached the Impala, Martin got out of the car and fired two shots at the officer, wounding him in his hip. Despite his injury, Runnels returned fire and killed Martin.

In May 2012, Blackburn was charged with, and later plead guilty to making a false and fictitious written statement in acquiring a firearm—also known as being a straw purchaser. A straw purchase is when someone lies on the firearm purchasing form about the identity of the actual buyer of the firearm—meaning, someone who can’t lawfully get their hands on a firearm has someone else purchase it and fill out the paperwork in their own name before turning around and handing it over to the other person who can’t legally get one.

Beech Grove Firearms co-owner Michelle Burge organizes a gun case. She said this ruling protects her shop because sellers can’t ever really know what someone’s intentions are when buying a gun. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

“We definitely key in to situations like that,” Michelle Burge said.

Michelle Burge said that, although she knows her shop and probably other sellers do their best to stop straw deals, they can never know someone’s true purpose in buying a gun and who it’s for. She said a driver who delivered to their store once purchased a gun from them and used it to kill someone, surprising them all.

“You never know what’s in the back of somebody’s mind, sadly,” she said. “We do our best, but you can never predict human intention.”

To prevent illegal gun sales from happening, the Burge’s gun shop abides by the federal sales regulations, including those outlined in the firearms transactions record form put out by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Every customer who purchases a firearm must fill out the form.

The form requires information like the customer’s name, address, height, weight and ethnicity but also lists 12 questions customers must answer. Gun shop employees have to make sure the first question—“Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form?”—is marked as “yes” and that the other 11 down the line—including “Have you ever been committed to a mental institution?” and “Have you ever been convicted in any court of a felony?”—are marked as “no” before handing over the gun.

“If any of these aren’t what they’re supposed to be, we have to stop the sale right then and there,” Michelle Burge said.

The shop also takes extra precautions to insure they are selling lawfully. On the front counter they have a sign that, in big, bold red and highlighter yellow letters, reads, “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy.” The sign explains buying a gun for someone who cannot legally purchase the weapon can get the buyer 10 years in jail and up to a $250,000 fine.

Although part of Runnels’ case for getting monetary damages from KS&E was dismissed in the Supreme Court ruling, another survives.

Runnels also sued the shop for being a public nuisance. He alleges KS&E has caused and maintained an unreasonable interference with the public’s health, safety and peace because they don’t properly train their employees to minimize the risk of criminals, juveniles and other prohibited or dangerous people obtaining firearms from their store.

That claim will continue in the courts because it doesn’t fall under the immunity statue, as Runnels only seeks equitable, not monetary, relief for it. Equitable relief in this case would be the court requiring that KS&E employees are trained properly.

“Those kinds of cases are the hard ones. The law is not there in black and white,” Professor Brookins said. “The question we have to ask ourselves is: Do you want to add the element of common sense?”

Similar to journalists in the freedom of the press section of the Constitution, the rights of gun dealers are clearly embedded in Indiana law. Guns dealers are a special protected class and get special types of immunity for what happens with their product once it leaves their doors, which is not the case for other businesses and employees of those businesses.

For example, a bartender who keeps serving alcohol to someone who has obviously had too much to drink could be held liable for the actions that person takes once they leave the bar and, for instance, drives drunk and harms someone.

The same logic applies to liquor store clerks selling beer to someone 21 or older and them giving it to someone who is underage, another instance of straw purchasing—but one that is not protected and specifically outlined in Indiana law.

“It appears to me the statute was designed to protect innocent and unknowing gun sellers from the acts of third parties,” wrote Justice Robert Rucker in his joined dissenting opinion with Chief Justice Loretta Rush following the ruling. “The legislature could not have intended to protect gun sellers from their own illegal acts.”

The Burge’s gun shop stands on Emerson Avenue in Beech Grove. Michelle Burge said she and her husband would have “a lot to lose” if they broke federal guidelines and knowingly sold a gun to someone who can’t legally have one. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

Roger Pardieck, one of Runnels’ attorneys, said it was disappointing to lose the case, as it had favorable rulings all the way through the chain, including the trial court judge, Court of Appeals and two of the state’s Supreme Court judges.

Pardieck said the continuation of the equitable relief half of the case is a small victory they intend to pursue to prevent illegal gun sales.

“The end goal was to prevent, to the extent we can, illegal sales of firearms. That was our contention,” he said. “It was an illegal sale, and it should’ve been judged as such by the Supreme Court.”

Michelle Burge said Beech Grove Firearms does everything they can to detect straw purchasing and follows federal guidelines but can’t ever be sure of what someone is going to do after buying. It’s just too gray.

“The way I look at is, if somebody’s going to kill somebody, they’re going to do it with whatever they have access to. Gun, car, knife,” Michelle Burge said. “Unfortunately, guns get the bad rap.”

Ashley Shuler is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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