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Gunmaker, Store Agree To Payout in Sniper Case

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page A01

Two survivors and the families of six slain victims of the 2002 sniper shootings have reached a $2.5 million settlement with the manufacturer of the Bushmaster rifle used during the attacks and the gun shop from which it had been stolen.

The victims' attorneys said yesterday that it was the first time a gunmaker has paid damages for crimes committed with its weapons. The manufacturer, Bushmaster Firearms Inc. of Windham, Maine, "paid damages for negligence leading to the criminal use of a gun," said the victims' co-counsel, Dennis Henigan.

"That's why it's a breakthrough of lasting significance," said Henigan, who also is legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which is based in the District.

Bushmaster ridiculed the Brady center's "false claim of victory" in a news release. "The Brady Group brought this lawsuit not for the victims, but for their anti-gun agenda," Bushmaster said. "We did not agree and would not agree to change the way we do business. . . . We were emphatic that Bushmaster did not commit any wrong doings."

The settlement was the third since June in which shooting victims have recovered large sums from gun dealers, according to the Brady center, which has been involved in lawsuits against gunmakers across the country.

Lawyers for Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Wash., where the sniper rifle was stolen, also said the settlement was merely a logical end to a lawsuit. "This is not a landmark by any means," said Seattle lawyer David L. Martin. "They were seeking huge amounts of money. The amount paid is a fraction of the amount sought."

After a judge in Tacoma denied motions by Bushmaster and Bull's Eye to dismiss the case last summer, the two sides entered mediation and then settlement talks. Ultimately, Bushmaster agreed to pay $550,000, and Bull's Eye agreed to pay $2 million. Insurance policies funded both payments, lawyers in the case said.

Vicki Buchanan Snider, whose brother, James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, was shot to death in Montgomery County on Oct. 3, 2002, said she was pleased with the outcome. "I know this will not be a cure-all," she said yesterday. "But I hope it sends a message that if you're going to sell guns to the general public, you will keep a secure store, you will keep accurate records, you don't just sell them to anyone."

In addition to Buchanan's relatives, the plaintiffs were the families of slaying victims Conrad Johnson, 35, Hong Im Ballenger, 45, Premkumar A. Walekar, 54, Sarah Ramos, 34, and Linda Franklin, 47; and survivors Iran Brown and Rupinder Oberoi.

Snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested in their car in October 2002 with a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic assault rifle, which ballistics tests showed was used in nearly all of the shootings. Nonfatal sniper shootings began in Maryland in September 2002, followed by sniper killings in Louisiana and Alabama. Then, in the Washington region the next month, came the explosion: 13 shootings in three weeks, 10 of them fatal.

Authorities believe that Malvo shoplifted the rifle from Bull's Eye, where he and Muhammad had been seen checking out the Bushmaster that later disappeared. Once the weapon was found in the back of Muhammad's Chevrolet Caprice and traced back to Bull's Eye, a search of federal records found that the shop had lost track of 238 guns in the previous three years and that more than 50 guns from the store were traced to criminal acts from 1997 to 2001.

Martin said poor paperwork and accounting within the store made it seem that many more guns were missing than actually were. "We have accounted for most if not all of the weapons," he said.

Families of six slain sniper victims filed wrongful death suits in Tacoma against Bushmaster and Bull's Eye, and two who survived -- Iran, who was 13 at the time of the shootings, and Oberoi, who was 22 -- filed injury claims against the gunmaker and gun shop. The family of another slaying victim, Pascal Charlot, 72, of the District, filed a wrongful death case in federal court in the District that is pending and was not part of yesterday's settlement.

Bushmaster did not return a call seeking comment. The news release posted on its Web site, in addition to disavowing wrongdoing, said the gunmaker settled the case after its insurance company turned over funds to be used as Bushmaster wished, either for fighting the case or settling it.

"We felt the compassionate thing to do was give it to the victims' families," the news release said, "not because we had to but because we wanted to."

Snider questioned Bushmaster's compassion in lobbying for a recently failed bill in Congress that would have granted gunmakers immunity from such lawsuits. Snider said she lobbied against the bill.

"To me, it's become unfathomable," said Snider, who gave emotional testimony in both sniper trials and then spoke out at news conferences about the need for better gun regulation. "We have more control over the toy industry or the car industry than we do over the gun industry."

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