A Milwaukee state court jury ordered Badger Guns, one of the country’s most prominent firearm retailers, to pay $5.73 million after the suburban West Milwaukee store was found liable for negligence Tuesday in the 2009 shooting of Bryan Norberg and Graham Kunisch, two local law enforcement officers.
The landmark case, which held firearm retailers responsible for disregarding the potential harm of their sales, is only the second of its kind nationwide — and the first to rule against the gun store.
(The other case, concluded early this summer, exonerated an Alaskan gun store of wrongdoing.)
“I didn’t want to send a message around the country,” Dunphy told reporters after the verdict was handed down. “What I wanted to do was represent my two clients, two Milwaukee police officers.”
He added, “If some gun dealers around the country realize that they may have their feet held to the fire because of the penal damage award here, then that’s a bonus.”
The defense attorney, James Vogts, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he intends to appeal. He argued at trial that Badger Guns owner, Adam Allan, couldn’t be held financially responsible for crimes connected to a weapon sold at the store, the AP reports.
A federal law passed in 2005 granted blanket civil immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers, but with several exceptions. Among these is “negligent entrustment” of a buyer with a firearm, for which the jury found Badger Guns liable.
The case against the store — formerly Badger Outdoors, now Brew City Shooter Supply — began with a problematic sale, the suit argued.
In May of 2009, Jacob Collins, a “straw purchaser,” arrived in Badger Guns with 18-year-old Julius Burton. Surveillance footage from inside the store shows Burton gesturing to his gun of choice: a Taurus PT140 Pro .40 caliber handgun.
“That’s the one I want,” he told Collins, an exchange the defendants said had not been seen by the store clerk who handled Collins’s purchase.
Before making the purchase, Collins was asked to fill out a Firearms Transaction Form, on which he initially checked “no” to being the actual buyer/transferee of the gun, the suit alleged. But on the counsel of Donald Flora, the store clerk, he changed his response to “yes,” the complaint alleged.
Two days later, Collins and Burton returned to the store to pick up the gun and some ammunition. Burton paid Collins, and they parted ways.
The following month, Norberg and Kunisch were on duty inside a squad car when they saw Burton riding his bicycle on the sidewalk. The officers directed Burton to move, as riding on the sidewalk goes against a Milwaukee ordinance. The 18-year-old ignored them and continued cycling.
The officers exited their car and started pursuing Burton, attempting to talk to him. He started flailing his arms, trying to flee and fighting aggressively, according to the complaint.
Then Burton pulled out a gun and started shooting. Both officers were hit, with Kunisch sustaining several severe injuries and Norberg wounded in the face.
Seven .40 caliber casings later, Burton fled, but he was found shortly afterwards in a basement. There, he had with him ten unfitted cartridges of .40GFL rounds, one loose .40GFL bullet and the Taurus PT140 Pro.
Though Burton was charged and later sent to jail, where he still remains, another wrongdoing haunted the officers and their families: At age 18, Burton couldn’t legally purchase a handgun by himself. Someone had to help him.
With their troubling businesses practices, the jury concluded, Badger Guns provided Burton with the opportunity to obtain a gun through the purchase by Collins.
In his testimony last week, the shooter himself described the store as a go-to place, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.
“Everyone knew about it, Badgers,” Burton said. “That is where a lot of people go, so I was like, I’ll go there.”
“There” was the source of more than 500 firearms found at crime scenes, authorities said, according to the AP. A charging document for an unrelated 2005 case called it the “No. 1 crime gun dealer in America.”
Badger Outdoors changed its name and transferred ownership to Badger Guns in 2007, allegedly to avoid having its license revoked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found. Through the name changes and the changes in ownership, the store has remained in the hands of the Allan family, even in its current iteration as Brew City Shooter Supply.
Badger Outdoors was owned by Walter Allan, the father of Badger Guns owner Adam Allan. In 2012, Michael Allan, Adam’s brother, took ownership and changed the name to Brew City Shooter Supply.
The store’s questionable practices helped sway jurors.
“A responsible business owner would do more and everyone agreed on that from the start,” jury foreperson Brett Heaton Juarez said. “Gun dealers have to do more than what we saw in this instance.”
Dunphy’s allegations of negligence on the store’s part were paired with sympathetic portraits of Norberg and Kunisch, the latter of whom retired after losing an eye and suffering from brain damage as a result of the shooting.
According to the Journal Sentinel, surgeon John Rhee told the jury that Kunsich is “lucky to be alive,” while Vynetta Norberg, a police sergeant herself, said her formerly easygoing husband has become hardened, short-tempered and cynical.
“Mentally, he could get to the point he could do something he’ll regret,” Vynetta said.
Though the officers’ victory in this case is historic, Dunphy told the AP on Tuesday that he expects years of appeals. The defense attorneys argued during the trial that Norberg and Kunisch hadn’t proven that store clerk Flora knew he was committing a crime.
“Why would Flora risk putting a gun in a felon’s hand to commit a violent crime?” Vogts said.
The issue of federal immunity for gun dealers emerged in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign last week, when the Democratic front-runner declared her plan to repeal the law protecting them from legal liability if elected.
The lawsuit, however, was explicitly apolitical, noting that it was neither challenging the right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms nor challenging the right of responsible gun dealers to operate a business of selling guns to law-abiding citizens.
“Negligently and illegally supplying the criminal market with guns not only causes foreseeable harm,” the complaint reads, “it unfairly tarnishes the responsible gun sellers who supply law abiding citizens with arms for lawful purposes.”
Whether intended by the jury or not, the verdict’s message is a powerful one.
“Will it change the way things are done around the country?” Dunphy asked. “Time will tell.”