Latest Front In War on Guns: Sue the Gun Store

In 2012, a man named William Spengler set his upstate New York house on fire, and lay in wait for firemen to respond to the blaze. When they did, he shot four of them with a rifle, killing two. Now some of the firefighters, or their heirs, are suing Gander Mountain, one of the country’s largest outdoor retailers:

The families of four New York state firefighters are suing St. Paul-based Gander Mountain, alleging that the retailer’s Rochester, N.Y.-area outlet could have prevented a “straw buyer” from purchasing the rifle that was turned over to a convicted killer and used on Christmas Eve 2012 to kill two firefighters and wound two others.

The lawsuit, which has the legal heft of prominent gun control advocates behind it, said the rifle used in the bloody ambush should never have been sold to 22-year-old Dawn Nguyen in 2010 with the eventual shooter at her side.


The suit alleges that Gander shouldn’t have sold Nguyen the rifle, even though she was a perfectly legal purchaser, because 1) Spengler was with her at the time; 2) she bought two firearms at once, a rifle and a shotgun; and 3) she allegedly paid cash. These grounds are weak: if plaintiffs had their way, stores could only sell one firearm at a time, and only to people who enter the store alone. And, while cash (i.e., a Federal Reserve note) is “legal tender for all debts, public and private,” guns are apparently the one product you should be required to pay for with a credit card.

Straw purchasers are notoriously difficult to catch. It would help if they were prosecuted more vigorously; firearms-related prosecutions have dropped sharply during the Obama administration, because Eric Holder has other priorities. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs’ anti-gun lawyer puts the burden squarely on Gander Mountain:

“Gun dealers have a responsibility to ensure they are selling guns to people legally entitled to purchase them,” said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project and co-counsel for the families and surviving firefighters. “Just like a bar has a responsibility not to sell alcohol to minors, Gander Mountain has a responsibility not to sell firearms to convicted criminals.”

Of course, Ms. Nguyen was not a convicted criminal, and she was legally entitled to buy firearms. But you may wonder: why did William Spengler need someone else to buy the rifle for him? If you read far enough, you learn this:

The suit spells out that Nguyen entered Gander Mountain with Spengler, who was prohibited from owning firearms after his conviction for killing his 92-year-old grandmother with a hammer.

Prohibited from owning guns? More to the point, he should be prohibited from owning hammers. But the more relevant question is, what the heck is he doing out on the streets? A few moments’ research discloses that Spengler beat his grandmother to death with a hammer in 1980. He was convicted of murder, and soon became eligible for parole. His first parole hearing, in 1989, didn’t go well. He argued with the board over how many times he had struck his grandmother with the hammer, and mused aloud about the possibility that if he were freed, he may kill again: “If you were capable of it once, are you capable of it again?” Nevertheless, the parole board freed him in 1998, following another parole hearing in 1997.

This case illustrates the futility of the standard approaches to gun control. It was illegal for Spengler to own guns–as well it should be–but he had no trouble obtaining them. (On the same day he ambushed the firefighters, he also murdered his sister with a handgun.) Currently, liberals are pushing for “universal background checks.” Background checks already are universally run by stores that sell firearms, like Gander Mountain. That is why criminals often use straw purchasers. Here, Gander ran a background check on Dawn Nguyen, and she passed. What went on in this case is already illegal, and, while existing laws could be better enforced, especially as to straw purchasers, adding new laws for maniacs like Spengler to violate–the list begins with first degree murder, of course–will do no good.

What would help? How about not letting known murderers like Spengler out of prison in the first place? Law enforcement couldn’t save his grandmother, but once Spengler was convicted and imprisoned for that crime, why let him go? What earthly reason can there be to free a man who beat his own grandmother to death with a hammer?

I suppose the parole board enjoys sovereign immunity and can’t be sued, so that leaves Gander Mountain. Needless to say, Gander broke no laws and, even if the allegations of the complaint are assumed to be true, did nothing blameworthy. But Gander is in the lawyers’ sights because they are part of a political campaign to suppress gun ownership:

The families’ legal team in this action includes the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which was founded in 1974 as the National Council to Control Handguns and has for decades been lobbying for stricter gun laws.

The case is already being politicized by the Democrats:

On Monday, Nguyen’s gun purchase was held up by a member of Congress from Rochester while she criticized an amendment to block funding for efforts to require gun dealers in southwestern border states to notify authorities when they sell two or more of certain long guns to the same person within five days.

“We’re particularly sad in our district,” said Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter said during a committee hearing, “and I don’t think they’re going to be very happy to find out there’s something that could have kept that young woman from doing that [but] was turned down by this committee.”

This is classic liberal logic: if you make it illegal to buy two long guns within five days, or require reporting of such purchases to the local police department, a criminal like Spengler will only have his straw purchaser buy one gun. And then, if he wants another, he will send the straw purchaser back to the store six days later. Or–here’s an idea!–he can send the purchaser to a different store on the same day. How dumb do liberals think criminals are?

Gander Mountain stores are a terrific resource. Among other things, they do a lot of firearms training. No doubt that training has saved lives–a more constructive contribution to public safety than is made by the gun grabbers. And some Gander stores, like the one near my house, have high-quality ranges where you can shoot in a safe, family-oriented environment:


So if you are in the market for outdoor products–and who isn’t, in May?–it wouldn’t hurt to swing by your local Gander Mountain store. Your purchases will help to defray the needless costs that well-funded ideologues are imposing, in an effort to advance their political agenda.

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