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When to Sue a Gun Shop

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on September 08, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

After James Holmes massacred 12 people in a Colorado movie theater in 2012, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, along with families of some of the victims, sued several online gun shops for supplying Holmes with the ammunition and supplies he used in the shooting. The lawsuit claimed retailers negligently supplied the murderer with tear gas, laser sights, and thousands of rounds of ammunition without ever running a background check.

But the suit didn't end well. After the case was dismissed, the parents of one victim actually owed one ammo dealer $203,000 in legal fees. This leaves many wondering whether you can ever sue a gun shop, and for what.

Off the Mark

Between the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and punitive state tort laws, suing a gun shop can be a risky proposition. The PLCAA provides immunity for gun manufacturers and sellers for the criminal acts of their customers. So while you may be able to sue a manufacturer if a gun causes an injury by malfunctioning, you probably can't sue them if a third party uses the gun as intended, to shoot you or someone else. And many states have laws saying if your civil case against a gun or ammunition seller is dismissed, you must pay all the defendant's costs.

That said, firearms manufacturers and dealers who negligently or knowingly allow guns to get into the wrong hands may be liable for injuries. Failing to follow state gun and background check laws, knowingly file false paperwork, or aiding and abetting the sale of guns to felons can potentially put gun shops on the hook if someone is shot or killed by an illegally sold gun.

In the 2002 sniper case, Bushmaster and a gun dealer involved were sued for negligence due to shoddy record-keeping by the dealer, and Bushmaster settled the claim. In the Holmes case, on the other hand, the websites likely had no way of knowing about Holmes's mental state or history of drug use, and they apparently were under no legal obligation to check.

On the Range

But off-site injuries from previously sold firearms and ammunition aren't the only means to sue a gun shop. Many gun shops double as gun ranges, and gun range injuries are unsurprisingly common. There are some cases where you could sue a gun range if you shoot yourself, and many more scenarios where you might be able to sue a gun range if someone else shoots you.

Suits against gun shops are rare, and rarely successful, and therefore require the advice of an expert. If you're thinking of suing a gun shop, you should contact an experienced personal injury attorney first.

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