WASHINGTON - Relatives of the Washington-area sniper victims hailed yesterday what they called a groundbreaking legal victory over the company that manufactured the stolen rifle the snipers used.
The company, Bushmaster Firearms, agreed to pay $550,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that it was negligent in selling guns to an irresponsible dealer.
The settlement, reached late Tuesday, marked the first time a gun manufacturer has agreed to pay damages in a case in which one of its weapons was used to commit criminal violence.
Relatives and lawyers who filed suit on their behalf called the settlement "history making."
It "marks the beginning of the end of the era when gun manufacturers can turn a blind eye to reckless dealers selling their guns," said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which helped bring the lawsuit.
"If they do not adopt some kind of reasonable code of conduct, there could be severe liability."
On top of the $550,000 from Bushmaster of Windham, Maine, the victims' families will receive $2 million from Bull's Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma, Wash. Bull's Eye, which had a history of failing to account for missing guns, appears to have lost track of the assault rifle that wound up in the hands of the snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
While the collective amount of restitution is relatively modest, especially when divided among the eight families involved, supporters say the settlement has set a precedent for holding manufacturers accountable for selling guns to delinquent dealers.
Speaking to reporters, Victoria Snider, whose brother James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr., was one of four people the snipers killed in Montgomery County on Oct. 3, 2002, said that while the settlement alone won't prevent such killings, it was an important first step.
Rupinder Oberoi, who survived after being shot, apparently by the snipers, outside a liquor store in September 2002, said he was pleased.
"I feel very happy because this is a very big message to the gun dealers," he said. "It's not easy thinking about [what happened], but at last we did something about it."
In a combative statement, Bushmaster denied that the settlement reflected anything more than its desire to end the case.
"We [are] emphatic that Bushmaster did not commit any wrong doings," the company wrote, saying it would not change anything about how it does business with gun dealers.
"The Washington DC Brady Group would have you believe they won some kind of victory!" the statement says. "Their attempt to eliminate gun rights of citizens has failed legislatively and will continue to fail with these frivolous lawsuits against gun manufacturers."
The statement said the company received a payment from its insurer to cover the costs.
"Our choice was to continue spending it on trial lawyers or turn it over directly to the victims' families, with no funds going to the Brady Group for their legal fees," the company wrote. "The compassionate thing to do was give it to the victims' families, not because we had to but because we wanted to."
Henigan, the lawyer for the Brady Center, rejected any notion that Bushmaster was acting out of compassion.
"It is utterly farfetched to believe this is the act of good Samaritanism," he said. Bushmaster "realized that going before a jury, they were risking enormous liability."
Gun manufacturers have avoided settlements and jury rewards in the past. In this case, lawyers say, Bushmaster faced a difficult situation. Bull's Eye was among the selected dealers it chose to sell weapons to.
The store is now under criminal investigation. Federal regulatory audits showed that more than 230 of its guns were "missing" from store shelves or sales books and that more than 50 of them have been traced to criminal acts between 1997 and 2001.
Malvo told authorities he stole the gun from the store.