A judge approved a landmark $1 million settlement Wednesday between two New Jersey police officers and the store that sold the gun used to shoot them.
Police officers David Lemongello and Kenneth McGuire of Orange, N.J., were shot with a Sturm, Ruger 9mm handgun in January 2001. Both were disabled and have retired. Their attacker, Shuntez Everett, was killed in a gunbattle with them.
The settlement between the officers and the Will Co., which operated Will’s Jewelry and Loan in South Charleston, was approved by Kanawha County Circuit Judge Irene Berger.
The shop sold the gun and 11 others in July 2000 in a “straw sale,” in which someone without a criminal record buys guns and turns them over to someone else. The store later contacted federal agents and cooperated in an undercover sting.
“This is the first case in which a gun dealer will pay damages, has paid damages for facilitating the gun trafficking in this way,” said Dennis Hanigan, an attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The center and Charleston attorney Scott Segal are co-counsel for the police officers.
Segal said the settlement “shows gun retailers they have to be careful about who they sell their guns to and under what circumstances.”
Weapon in ‘straw sale’
Lawrence Keane, an attorney for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry, said there have been other settlements of cases against gun stores by people who were shot, but he did not know if any of those cases involved a “straw sale.”
The gun used to shoot the officers was bought by Tammi Lea Songer of South Charleston, who turned the guns over to James Gray, a convicted felon who could not buy guns. Gray sold them to other convicted felons, including Everett. Songer and Gray spent time in prison for their roles.
An attorney for the store, Michael Folio, said the shop is not admitting liability or that it did not follow industry standards, but settled because “it was a decision we found to be in the best interest of all parties.
“It was a tragedy what happened to the officers. It was a tragedy these people bought the guns by lying and deceiving and deceiving Will Company to begin with.”
The gun retail industry has voluntary standards about gun sales, including how to be wary of straw sales, Segal said.
“The message is, if you didn’t follow the standards as a retailer or a wholesaler, you are going to wind up having to pay money for your conduct,” Segal said.
Songer gave the store false federal gun purchase forms and paid for the 12 guns with $4,000 cash Gray gave her in the store, the officers’ attorneys said.
Contact with ATF
The day after the sale, store workers became suspicious because of the number of weapons Songer bought and contacted the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The agency and the store set up a sting operation in which ATF officers dressed as store clerks, and Songer was arrested when she returned to buy guns again, Folio said.
Folio complained the settlement means “if a company like Will Jewelry complies with the ATF laws it appeared that company can be sued and have to pay damages.”
The lawsuit is still pending against Sturm, Ruger and also names Ohio gun distributor Acusport as a defendant.
Acusport sold the gun to another distributor, who sold it to a Baptist minister. He gave or sold the gun to a friend who was a firearms collector. That person pawned it at the shop where the straw sale occurred.
Keane, the National Shooting Sports Foundation attorney, said suing the manufacturer and distributor is “an attempt to extort a settlement.”
“Manufacturers don’t control what goes on inside the store. It’s like suing Budweiser if a bartender serves an intoxicated person,” Keane said.