Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, the parents of Aurora shooting victim Jessica Ghawi sued Lucky Gunner and other retailers with the intended goal of changing company policy, and ultimately public policy in regard to online gun and ammo sales.
Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was 24 when she was shot and killed in 2012, in a massacre during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Ghawi was one of the 12 moviegoers who died that night – another 70 were wounded – at the hands of James Holmes.
In 2014, Ghawi’s mother and stepfather, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, sued the companies that supplied Holmes with ammunition and body armor. The suit named Lucky Gunner, which operates as BulkAmmo.com and sold Holmes more than 4,000 rounds of ammunition; The Sportsman’s Guide, which sold him a 100-round magazine and 700 rounds; BTP Arms, which supplied two canisters of tear gas; and Bullet Proof Body Armor.
The Phillipses’ suit faced long odds. Both the U.S. and Colorado (along with many other states) have laws shielding guns and ammo dealers from liability to shooting victims in most circumstances. (They may be responsible, for instance, if they’ve sold a defective product or violated gun sale regulations.) The federal law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, has been subjected to many challenges, including allegations that it violates the constitutional separation of powers doctrine because it impinges on states’ lawmaking powers and the constitutional due process rights of shooting victims with common-law claims. According to the Justice Department, those constitutional challenges have all failed.
But the Phillipses and their lawyers at Arnold & Porter argued their case was different because the dealers sold weaponry to Holmes over the Internet, without ever seeing his face or assessing his state of mind. That made the dealers negligent, the Phillipses said, despite their protections under state and federal law. “A crazed, homicidal killer should not be able to amass a military arsenal, without showing his face or answering a single question, with the simple click of a mouse,” the Brady Center gun control advocacy group said in a statement announcing the Phillipses’ suit, in which Brady Center lawyers are also involved. “If businesses choose to sell military-grade equipment online, they must screen purchasers to prevent arming people like James Holmes.”
The suit did not ask for damages but only an injunction requiring the dealers to end their “negligent and dangerous business practices.”
U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch of Denver sided with the ammo dealers. Late last month, (March 2015) he ruled not only that the Phillipses’ case must be dismissed but also that Lucky Gunner and The Sportsman’s Guide are entitled to fees and costs. Even though Matsch’s decision apparently marks the first time that fees have been granted under Colorado’s law shielding gun and ammo dealers from liability, the judge didn’t provide any explanation of his reasoning.
Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, parents of Aurora victim Jessica Ghawi explain their stance on the lawsuit:
“We have been getting a lot of questions about our lawsuit against Lucky Gunner, the online company that sold ammunition to the man who murdered our daughter Jessica along with 11 others in an Aurora, Colorado, theater. Especially after the Rachel Maddow Show covered us twice, people ask us about the judge’s order that we pay Lucky Gunner’s attorneys’ fees, since our lawsuit was unsuccessful.
We brought our lawsuit because we thought it was outrageous that companies could sell a dangerous man an arsenal without getting any information about him, and without making any effort to see if he was a dangerous killer — which he was. When the killer had left a voicemail with a shooting range, the range operator knew that he was bad news and shouldn’t be given access to guns. But these companies set up their business so people just like this killer can arm themselves at the click of a mouse. We wanted to change that. And we still do.
Attorneys at Arnold and Porter and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence brought the lawsuit for us, pro bono. We knew the risks of bringing the case. We knew that Colorado and Congress have given special protection of the gun industry, and we knew that under Colorado law we could even be ordered to pay attorneys’ fees because of those special protections.
But we thought it was important to take a stand, to fight to prevent other families from suffering as we have. We did not seek any money in our case. We just wanted injunctive relief — to have these companies act reasonably when they sold dangerous materiel, like 100-round ammunition magazines, ammunition, body armor, and tear gas.
The judge dismissed our case because, he said, these online sellers had special immunity from the general duty to use reasonable care under the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and a Colorado immunity law. If you couple the PLCAA law with Colorado’s law HB 000-208, (which says in essence: If you bring a civil case against a gun or ammunition seller and the case is dismissed then the plaintiff must pay all the defendant’s costs), you have an impenetrable barrier to using the judicial system to effect change in gun legislation in Colorado.
Everyone else in society has a duty to use reasonable care to not injure others — except gun and ammunition sellers.
To make matters worse, the judge ordered that we pay $203,000. This is an outrageous amount, especially given that this case was decided after one single motion! Lucky Gunner has said that it is going to donate all these fees to “gun rights” groups. The thought is disgusting to us that Lucky Gunner does not even plan to use this money to pay for their attorney’s fees.
Lucky Gunner wants to use blood money to fund the NRA and like-minded groups. See for yourself. Check out Lucky Gunner’s self-serving description of our case then click on “Head Here” (the green words at the end of Lucky Gunner’s last sentence) to find out how the money is to be distributed.
The law says we are responsible for these fees, which we recognize. We do not have the money to pay this amount. The Judge insinuated in his order that Brady should pay since he said they were the instigators. If this was a ploy designed to give the appearance that Brady was responsible and turn us against each other, it did not work.
Brady is still fighting for us pro bono and we see no evidence that the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence will not help us raise funds if and when that time comes.
We believe that the judge’s decision was wrong, and that it is unconstitutional to financially punish people for bringing a lawsuit, especially a public interest case that did not seek a dime. But rather than risk possibly being ordered to pay even more fees, we are changing our focus from going after these laws in the judicial branch (we have dropped our appeal) to getting them overturned on the legislative level.
We have brought attorney Dan Wartell with the law firm Jones & Keller into our team who is also helping us.
We hope that we are spearheading a movement to expose these egregious and unconstitutional laws for what they really are. They are an attack on our civil liberties. With these laws in place ordinary citizens are effectively barred by the exorbitant cost from bringing any civil action against sellers of firearms and ammunition.
It is un-American and outrageous that these special laws can deny us our day in court simply because we were victimized by the gun industry. Our lawsuit was not frivolous. Our Jessi was shot multiple times with high-velocity, armor-piercing bullets that were designed by our military to inflict maximum damage on enemy combatants.
One of the six, steel-jacketed bullets that killed her slammed through a theater seat, entered her left eye and left a five-inch hole in her face as it blew her brains out on to the theater floor. The other five specially designed bullets tumbled when they tore through her flesh and did devastating damage to both legs, arms and intestines.
Those bullets were six of 4,000 that Lucky Gunner sold to a mass murderer in one sale without even checking his driver’s license.
Why is there a law that says you cannot sue an ammunitions dealer that allowed 4,000 rounds of armor-piercing bullets into the wrong hands?
How else are we as citizens going to get them to stop doing that?
No other industry has this immunity.
The horrific and public execution of our daughter Jessi and 11 other beautiful young lives has given us a brief window of opportunity to bring awareness to the number one public health crisis facing this nation today which is rampant gun violence. It is unfathomable to me that the billion dollar gun lobby can intimidate our Congress and some state legislatures into passing laws that give the gun industry immunity against irresponsible acts that enables them to arm, and profit from, domestic terrorists, and other killers.
It is abhorrent to us as the parents of a child who has been killed by a person with outwardly obvious mental issues who was able to easily access a one hundred round magazine and 4,000 rounds of armor-piercing bullets online without a valid ID.
Who is our last line of defense that makes that conscious decision to not ask for ID before selling large orders of lethal, military-grade armament? Online sellers, knowing they are shielded by immunity laws, refuse to put into place even minimal safeguards that would save lives. That is abhorrent to us.
One of the ways that we can level the playing field is to create precedents in our court rooms that make gun and ammunition dealers pay a price for conduct that contributes to gun violence. Another way is to lobby our state and federal legislators to repeal these laws. That is our objective.
We are calling on the citizens of this country and the gun violence prevention community to stand ready to help us get in the face of state and national legislators. Join us in helping to get the word out to the American citizens who are not aware of how these laws take away the rights of victims of gun violence.”
How do you feel about the suit the Phillips filed, and ultimately lost? They were not asking for ‘gun control,’ they are asking that online retailers use a more thorough screening process; James Holmes purchased a military arsenal without showing ID, or answering a single question.
My view is, had one person in that theater been armed, their daughter might still be alive.
Search gun laws by STATE.