Placeholder Image

Downtown Baxter Springs, Kans.

Law

In Kansas, a Major — But Rare — Victory in Legal Battle Against Negligent Gun Shops

A legal odyssey finds its conclusion.

On September 5, 2003, a convicted felon named Russell Graham and his grandmother entered Baxter Springs Gun & Pawn Shop in Baxter Springs, Kansas, and left with a shotgun that Graham used later that day to shoot and kill his eight-year-old son Zeus and himself.

Now, after a nearly 10-year-long legal battle that reached the Kansas Supreme Court, the owners of the shop have reached a $132,000 settlement with Zeus’s mother, Elizabeth Shirley, who claimed in a lawsuit that the shop knowingly allowed a straw purchase of the shotgun.

The settlement represents what the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which represented Shirley as part of its push for greater accountability for so-called “bad apple” gun shops, is heralding as a significant win. According to Brady, five percent of all dealers are responsible for 90 percent of all crime guns. But as The Trace’s Jeremy Borden reported this week, the group’s lawsuits have been stymied by a 2005 law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, which protects gun dealers from being held responsible for crimes committed with their wares. After an Alaska judge found against the family of a murder victim in what seemed like a viable case against a Juneau gun store, one of the lawyers told Borden that PLCAA was the “biggest issue” in the suit’s defeat. “There’s no other business in America that gets to operate like that.”

In the Kansas case, Graham’s grandmother, Imogene Glass, alleged that Graham acknowledged his felony convictions to the owners of the gun shop, Joe and Patsy George, who then allowed Graham to pay cash for the weapon while Glass filled out the required federal firearms transaction record, identifying herself as the buyer. Such straw purchases are illegal under federal law.

The Georges have denied knowing that Graham was a convicted felon. Their attorney, Scott C. Nehrbass, told the Associated Press that the Georges “are very good people who did nothing wrong and obviously have never admitted any liability.”

Shirley filed a negligence lawsuit against Baxter Springs Gun & Pawn Shop in August 2005, beginning a legal odyssey that spanned almost a decade. A district court rejected all negligence claims against the Georges in 2008, but a Kansas Court of Appeals ruling two years later reversed part of the district court’s judgment, and the Kansas Supreme Court decision expanded upon that ruling in 2013, finding that the Georges could be held liable for both negligence and “negligent entrustment” of a firearm.

“The legislature has determined that certain convicted felons fall within that special-risk group,” wrote the court, “and a firearms dealer must exercise the highest standard of care in order to avoid selling guns to such felons.”

[Photo: Flickr user J. Stephen Conn]