Missouri High Court Weighs Case on Gun Shop Liability

A lawyer for a Missouri mother who says a pawn shop should be held accountable for selling her mentally ill daughter the gun she used to kill her own father challenged a claim that state and federal law protects the seller from liability.

Attorney Jonathan Lowy, of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told state Supreme Court judges Wednesday that Odessa Gun & Pawn was negligent when it sold Colby Sue Weathers the gun in June 2012, hours before she used it to shoot and kill her father and two days after her mother warned the store that her daughter was mentally ill.

The state has since committed Weathers to a mental institution.

But the gun dealer, bolstered by arguments from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said both Missouri and federal law blocks such lawsuits. Pawn shop attorney Derek MacKay said the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which bars some state-law actions against gun dealers if buyers use the weapons to harm others, was meant to prevent a “chilling effect” that lawsuits might have on commerce.

“It’s very clear that this statute was designed to prevent negligence claims,” he said.

Lowy said he doesn’t believe the law blocks Weather’s mother Janet Delana’s claim against the pawn shop. But if judges interpret it to do so, he said the law should be ruled unconstitutional because it intrudes on states’ rights and takes away legal opportunities for victims of gun violence.

Lowy also said that while the shop had the right to refuse to sell a gun to Weathers, it was store practice to sell guns to anyone who passed a background check.

“There’s a Second Amendment right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to have guns, but with rights come responsibilities,” Lowy told The Associated Press after the arguments. “Gun dealers have a responsibility to use reasonable care to prevent dangerous people from getting guns.”

U.S. attorneys weighed in on the case in court filings, arguing that the federal law is constitutional because it “is not a general bar of civil actions against firearms manufacturers and sellers” and includes exceptions to allow for some types of lawsuits. They took no position on the scope of the federal law and its applicability to the case at hand.

Judges questioned the attorneys about how similar hypothetical cases might play out legally. Judge Laura Denvir Stith asked Lowy whether a car dealer would be considered negligent if, after being notified that someone with a history of drunken driving was intoxicated at the time and planned to buy a vehicle, the dealer sold the individual a car anyway.

Judge Richard B. Teitelman raised questions about a gun dealer’s responsibility if advised against selling a gun to someone whose relatives warn that they might carry out a mass shooting. Teitelman said that’s an example of “some of the issues we’re dealing with today.”

Judges did not indicate when they might rule on the case.