Nine years after Danny “Bud” Williams was shot while playing basketball in front of his Buffalo house, an appeals courts has ruled he can sue the gun industry.
The State Appellate Court in Rochester has unanimously overturned a lower-court decision and ruled that Williams, now 25, can sue those who made, distributed and sold the handgun used to fire the bullet that ripped through his stomach in 2003, ending his promising basketball career.
This is the first case in which a court has held that a gun manufacturer or distributor may be held liable under the 2005 federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act for supplying gun traffickers and facilitating a criminal shooting, according to the Brady Center in Washington, D.C.
“This important ruling states that gun companies who choose to supply the criminal gun market are not above the law,” said Jonathan Lowy, a Brady Center attorney who, along with Buffalo lawyer Terrence Connors, represents Williams.
“When the gun industry places profits over people, it should and must be held accountable to the innocent victims of its dangerous practices,” Lowy said.
“We are pleased with the appellate victory and anxious to press this case to trial,” Connors added.
Attorneys for the gun industry were not immediately available when contacted by The Buffalo News on Monday, but Jeffrey Malsch, who represents the gun distributor, told Reuters News Service that he is reviewing the appellate decision.
“We believe [the lower court ruling dismissing the case] was a courageous and legally correct decision, but the Fourth Department was unwilling to follow his well-reasoned opinion,” said Malsch, a lawyer representing MKS Supply. “Whether we appeal or not, we are confident that ultimately the facts will contradict the baseless allegations in the complaint, and the case will be dismissed.”
Williams, who was 16 at the time, was a victim of mistaken identity when he was wounded in a shooting in 2003. He was a standout basketball player at McKinley High School with a promising future at a Division 1 college. But after the bullet tore through Williams’ stomach, he was never able to completely regain his athletic dominance.
The gun used to shoot Williams was among some 250 purchased at Ohio gun shows by gun trafficker James Nigel Bostic, formerly of Buffalo, who profited by dumping many of the cheap handguns on the streets of Buffalo.
Bostic, as well as the man who shot Williams, Cornell Caldwell, were arrested and imprisoned for their crimes. But attorneys for Williams said the gun industry also is responsible for the shooting. The gun manufacturer, Beemiller, knew it was making guns tied to urban street crime, as the gun distributor, MKS, was working closely with Beemiller, William’s attorneys said. Also, the gun show dealer, Charles Brown, had to have known Bostic was buying guns for illegal purposes and using girlfriends to make straw purchases for him, Williams’ attorneys argued.
Attorneys for the gun industry countered that the gun dealer believed Bostic was planning to open a gun shop and that he followed all the rules set out by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which regulates gun-show sales.
Also, the industry lawyers argued, because the gun sales occurred in Ohio, New York State has no legal standing in the case.
State Justice Frederick J. Marshall agreed with the gun industry when the case was heard in State Supreme Court in Buffalo. He dismissed the case May 18, 2011. But Friday’s ruling reversed Marshall’s opinions on each of those issues.
The Appellate Court in Rochester, after hearing the case Sept. 6, concluded in an opinion issued Friday that there is ample evidence that the Williams case falls into the exemption categories of the federal Commerce in Arms Act. The court also found that New York State has legal standing to pursue the case, even though the gun used to shoot Williams was made, distributed and initially purchased in Ohio.
The case now will move forward, entering the discovery phase, when depositions are taken.
Connors and the Brady Center took up Williams’ case after it was featured in a series of articles on gun trafficking The Buffalo News published in 2005.