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Appeals judges rule against plaintiffs in Jewish community center shootings

Firearms manufacturers and sellers cannot be held liable for criminal misuse of their products, a federal appeals court panel ruled Monday in a case stemming from a white supremacist’s 1999 shooting rampage at a Jewish community summer camp in Granada Hills.

The suit brought by the mother of a man fatally shot by Buford O. Furrow Jr. and the families of five others wounded -- including three preschool children -- sought to hold Georgia-based Glock Inc., dealer RSR Wholesale Guns Seattle and a Chinese manufacturer liable for negligence.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld the constitutionality of a 2005 federal law that retroactively shielded gun makers and distributors from responsibility for criminal acts involving properly functioning weapons.

Furrow, a follower of the racist Aryan Nations, unleashed a barrage of semiautomatic weapons fire at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills on Aug. 10, 1999, wounding an adult, a teenager and three children ages 4 to 6. Later in the day, he shot and killed Chatsworth letter carrier Joseph S. Ileto.

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Furrow pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and is serving five life terms in prison.

The victims’ suit against the gun providers was dismissed in 2002 for failure to state a claim under California law. A year later, a 9th Circuit panel reversed that District Court decision and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review it, clearing the way for trial of the gun makers and sellers.

Meanwhile, Congress passed the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, shielding suppliers from such suits and ordering dismissal of pending claims.

Monday’s ruling asserted that the law doesn’t violate constitutional protections of due process and separation of powers.

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“Glock and RSR certainly sympathize with the victims of Buford Furrow who have been through a horrible tragedy . . . but we are happy that Glock and RSR are able to reaffirm their good name and the reputation of the firearms and law enforcement communities,” said New York attorney Christopher Renzulli, who defended the gun maker and seller.

A third defendant, China North Industries Corp., was not held to be immune from prosecution, though, because the law applies only to those registered with the federal government. The 9th Circuit panel sent the case against the Beijing company back to U.S. District Court for trial.

But China North’s lawyer, Charles H. Dick Jr. of San Diego, also saw the panel’s ruling as likely to result in a reprieve for his client. China North neither makes nor imports guns to the United States and has asserted throughout the case that the weapons used by Furrow weren’t provided by the company, although some manufacturers use its brand name, Dick said.

By affirming that the 2005 law protects suppliers, the appeals court has established that a manufacturer can’t be sued “on the theory that they were negligent in the way they sold these weapons,” Dick said.

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Joshua Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which argued for the shooting victims, said the split ruling and the exclusion of China North “certainly leaves multiple options open” for the plaintiffs to pursue.

“This case has gone on for a long time with a lot of interesting twists and turns. It’s time to take stock of what our options are,” Horwitz said.

Judge Marsha S. Berzon, a 9th Circuit appointee of President Bill Clinton, dissented from the ruling that the 2005 law passes constitutional muster. Judges Susan P. Graber, also named to the bench by Clinton, and Stephen Reinhardt, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, provided the majority.

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carol.williams@latimes.com


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