Bass Pro Shops and its subsidiary Cabela’s last year quietly stopped internet and telephone sales of antique-style revolvers and muskets, closing what gun violence experts said had been a loophole for people with felony convictions to illegally buy firearms.
The move came after a 2016 shooting death in which an Ohio man who was legally barred from possessing a gun was still able to buy a replica Civil War era revolver over the phone from Cabela's. He later used it to shoot and kill his neighbor, according to a lawsuit filed by the neighbor's family.
“Cabela’s has instituted sweeping reforms to its marketing and sales practices to keep black powder guns out of the hands of individuals with a violent history and others prohibited by law from possessing a gun,” said Jonathan Lowy, a lawyer for the family and the chief counsel for Brady: United Against Gun Violence, a group that favors increased regulation of gun purchases.
The restriction on what are known as black powder guns is another example of large U.S. retailers rethinking how easy they’ve made it for Americans to buy firearms, especially online, after high-profile or preventable shootings.
While firearms are still easily accessible for many Americans, changes have been coming to large retailers in recent years in response to gun violence. In 2019, Walmart discontinued the sale of some ammunition and weapons and asked its customers not to openly carry firearms in its stores.
Black powder firearms — named for the loose gunpowder that needs to be loaded into the guns — are a niche product that owners often buy as an unusual way to hunt or as a historical throwback to an era such as the Revolutionary War.
The replicas are based on antique technology but made with modern materials, and in some circumstances, they can be as deadly as modern firearms.
And in some places, black powder guns are also one of the few ways a person with a felony conviction can purchase a firearm. A 1968 federal law that otherwise bars people who’ve committed serious crimes from having a gun has an exception that allows for antique-style guns. State laws vary, with some states allowing felons to buy them while others, like Ohio, do not, a situation that authorities said has sometimes led to unlawful sales.
Now, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s say they’re selling black powder guns only in stores, requiring buyers to physically pick them up as a way to improve legal compliance. Labels on the stores’ websites reflect the change.
“We take compliance very seriously and we are steadfast in our commitment to following all local, state and federal laws,” Cabela’s said in a statement.
There is little published research about how often black powder firearms are used in violent crimes. News reports about them are rare, but the Ohio case isn't the only example. In 2004, a Pennsylvania man bought a replica 19th century black powder pistol from the Cabela's website and used it in a triple homicide, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In the Ohio case, authorities said that Bryan Galliher died in 2016 after his neighbor shot him with a replica 1858 revolver that he had bought by phone from Cabela’s. Galliher's family sued in 2018, saying Cabela’s never should have sold the gun to the neighbor because he had a felony conviction for assault and was ineligible to buy it under Ohio state law.
Cabela’s shipped the revolver to the neighbor by mail and did not require him to complete a background check, a step that would have shown it was taking care to enforce state law, according to the lawsuit. It later sold him a powder loading kit, too, the suit says.
“Bryan Galliher would be alive today if Cabela’s had followed Ohio law to keep black powder guns out of the hands of prohibited purchasers,” Lowy said.
Cabela’s also agreed to pay Galliher’s family a “seven-figure sum” in a settlement that a judge approved in February, according to Brady.
Cabela’s confirmed the settlement of the lawsuit but declined to comment on the payment. The retailer said that the settlement did not include any admission of wrongdoing on its part, and that it stopped online and telephone sales voluntarily and independently, after the lawsuit was filed but prior to the settlement.
In court papers before the settlement, Cabela’s denied many of the allegations in the lawsuit, including that it had a duty not to sell black powder firearms to prohibited purchasers in states such as Ohio. It said the sale had legally taken place in Nebraska, not Ohio, because that's where its call center and distribution warehouse are. And it had asked the suit to be dismissed because of a 2005 federal law that generally bars lawsuits against gun sellers over criminal misuse of firearms. The judge, though, allowed most of the suit to proceed.
The settlement of the lawsuit has not been previously reported. Cabela’s said it made the change to black powder gun sales last year, but it did not receive wide attention beyond firearms message boards online, where some enthusiasts expressed confusion over the reason for the change.
Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s are two of the largest U.S. retailers specializing in outdoor equipment. They controlled more than 20 percent of the hunting, camping and fishing market when the two companies combined in 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported.
A jury in Ohio convicted Galliher’s neighbor, Paul Claren, of aggravated murder and illegal gun possession in 2017. He had argued self-defense. A state appeals court threw out the murder conviction last year, citing improper jury instructions, and a new trial is scheduled for as soon as August.