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Thursday, September 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Gun dealer and manufacturer settle in sniper lawsuit

By Maureen O'Hagan
Seattle Times staff reporter

Brian Borgelt, ex-gun-shop owner.
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The families of eight D.C. sniper victims reached two settlements totaling $2.5 million yesterday with the dealer and manufacturer of the rifle used in the shooting spree that left Washington, D.C.-area residents afraid to leave their homes in the fall of 2002.

Lawyers for the families call the settlements "landmark."

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which has filed a number of gun suits, said this is the first time a gun manufacturer has agreed to pay a settlement to victims.

Bushmaster Firearms Inc. of Maine will pay $550,000, all of which is covered by its insurance policy. And Bull's Eye Shooter Supply, in Tacoma, will pay $2 million, the largest settlement of its kind by a gun dealer, the Brady Center said.

"This settlement sends a loud message to all gun manufacturers that they can't look the other way when their guns are being irresponsibly sold or secured at the retail level," said Jon Lowy, a lawyer with the Brady Center.

"The Brady Center lawsuit was intended to put Bushmaster out of business or make it change its business practices. Neither goal was accomplished," said Steve Fogg, who represented Bushmaster along with Kelly Corr.

"Bushmaster didn't pay a dime out of its own pocket and will continue to follow its same responsible business practices," Fogg said.

In a statement, Bushmaster did not admit any wrongdoing, but said the money "will go to the victims' families for their grief." The lawyer representing Bull's Eye could not be reached.

The lawsuit, filed in January 2003 in Pierce County, also named convicted snipers Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, although there is unlikely to be any recovery from them.

For a terrifying month in the fall of 2002, the teenage Malvo and his father figure, Muhammad, roamed the suburbs around the nation's capital, randomly shooting people who were mowing their lawns, shopping and going to work. In all, police say they killed 10 people and wounded three. (Not all of them have filed suit.) Both men have been tried and convicted for one killing; Muhammad was sentenced to death and Malvo to life in prison.

Federal agents traced the weapon used in a number of the shootings, a .223-caliber XM 14 Bushmaster rifle, back to Bull's Eye.
 
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Brian Borgelt, former Bull's Eye owner, lost his license to sell guns and has been the subject of a criminal investigation, although he has not been charged. A source in the Department of Justice anticipates resolving that case soon.

The shop had problems for several years. Records show that Bull's Eye could not account for the sales of 238 weapons, when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents conducted an audit. Owners blamed the disappearances on shoplifters. And, in fact, authorities think Malvo shoplifted the rifle — in a police interview, Malvo referred to it as a "donation."

"Its security was so abysmal that it appears that a 17-year-old, Malvo, was able to stroll into the store and stroll out holding a 3-foot-long assault rifle," Lowy said. "And Bull's Eye didn't even know the gun was missing until the police called several weeks later to tell them it was found in the trunk of the snipers' car."

The plaintiffs claimed Bushmaster was negligent in selling to a shoddy gun dealer. This was the first time the company had been sued for the criminal use of one of its weapons. It is also facing a lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., by another sniper victim.

The settlements were reached through mediation. The suit was brought by the Brady Center and by The Luvera Firm of Seattle. The Corr Cronin firm represented Bushmaster.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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