The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for victims of the 1999 shooting rampage by white supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr. to sue the companies that made his guns.
Without comment, the justices let stand a decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that said the mother of a Los Angeles letter carrier killed by Furrow and the families of several children wounded by him could sue Glock Inc. and China North Industries, the gun manufacturers.
The companies -- and eight dissenting judges of the 9th Circuit -- had argued that the appeals court’s decision would open the way for manufacturers, at least in California, to be hauled into court simply because their products had been used improperly.
Gun control groups hailed Monday’s development. “We look forward to these victims having their day in court,” said Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, which is based in Washington, D.C.
On Aug. 10, 1999, Furrow -- a follower of the racist Aryan Nations -- sprayed a Jewish community center in Granada Hills with gunfire, wounding five people. Later that day, he killed Joseph S. Ileto. After being arrested, Furrow told FBI agents that he had shot the letter carrier because Ileto looked “Asian or Latino” and worked for the government. Ileto was Filipino American.
The families of three children who were wounded by Furrow at the Jewish Community Center joined Ileto’s mother, Lillian Ileto, in suing the companies.
In March 2001, U.S. District Judge Nora M. Manella sentenced Furrow to five life terms in prison after he pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty.
In their civil suit, the victims’ families said that the companies had produced and distributed many more guns than possibly could have been purchased by law-abiding customers.
Their suit also alleged that many of the weapons were sold at guns shows and through “kitchen table dealers,” who may be licensed but are loosely regulated. The manufacturers often advertised their wares with the illicit market in mind, the suit alleged.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers Peter Nordberg and Sayre Weaver cited Glock’s marketing of its 9-millimeter “pocket rocket” concealable handgun, which Furrow used that day.
In October 2003, a 9th Circuit panel ruled that allowing the suit to go to trial could encourage gun manufacturers to be more cautious in overseeing how their products are sold.
“The social value of manufacturing and distributing guns without taking basic steps to prevent these guns from reaching illegal purchasers and possessors cannot outweigh the public interest in keeping the guns out of the hands of ... [those] who in turn use them in crimes,” Judge Richard Paez wrote.
The gun makers then asked the full 9th Circuit to review the case. The court declined in May, but eight dissenting judges predicted dire consequences if the suit went forward.
“The potential impact of the ... decision is staggering,” they said.
Nordberg noted that the avalanche of litigation predicted by the dissenting judges had not occurred. He also said that Monday’s development was not surprising “because ... the 9th Circuit decision turned on issues of California law, which the Supreme Court normally would not get involved in.”
“We are pleased that there is a rule of liability that holds gun manufacturers to the same standards of reasonable care that everyone else is subject to,” Nordberg said.
He said he now would have to prove that the gun makers had acted negligently or created a public nuisance by using an unreasonable pattern in distributing their products.
Colin Murray, a lawyer for China North Industries, said he was disappointed that the Supreme Court had not taken up the case. A lawyer for Glock did not return a call seeking comment.
The case will return to the court of U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins. The two sides said they anticipate that the discovery process will start soon. Ultimately, the Supreme Court could review the case after a trial.