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A rare trial that pits two injured police officers against one of the top sellers of crime-linked guns in the nation is set to go before a Milwaukee County jury on Monday.
The case, which could have implications for weapons sales across the U.S., involves a pair of Milwaukee officers who were seriously injured by guns purchased illegally from local dealer, Badger Guns. The officers are seeking financial compensation and are suing for negligence, claiming that the West Milwaukee gun shop didn't have enough safeguards in place to prevent firearms from getting in the wrong hands.
"The purpose behind this suit is to compensate victims of Badger Guns' negligence, but also to create an incentive for gun dealers to act responsibly," said Jonathan Lowy, a lawyer with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which is representing the officers.
While cases against gun dealers for negligently supplying criminals are not unusual, they are typically settled out of court and do not go to a jury trial. Jury selection starts in this case on Monday, and opening arguments are expected by Tuesday morning.
"I do not know of any other cases like it. I think this is a new theory," said Marquette University law professor and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske. "It's a new attempt to try to deal with the guns that come out of some of these gun stores."
The plaintiffs — police officer Bryan Norberg and former officer Graham Kunisch — were shot in the line of duty in 2009, both in the face. The extent of their injuries will be discussed at trial, but Lowy said both have "permanent damage" and called them "strong, brave people."
The gun used in their shooting was sold through a straw purchase — a sale of a gun to a buyer who is acquiring it on behalf of someone not legally allowed to buy guns themselves.
The straw buyer, Jacob Collins, bought the gun for Julius Burton, an 18-year-old with an arrest record, according to reports. He pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted first-degree homicide, and both received prison time.
"I think everybody in the gun debate on both sides would agree that convicted felons shouldn’t be having access to these guns," Geske said. "But rather than just focusing on the offenders themselves, which is what the gun store says, [this case is] focusing on the behavior of the gun store."
The case is "an attempt to put responsibility on those gun stores to do everything they can to make sure those guns aren't falling in the hands of felons," she added.
"Gun dealers across the country are on notice now that if they put profits over people and irresponsibly supply the criminal market, we'll seek to hold them accountable."
Badger Guns has been beleaguered by so many federal law violations that the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms recommended its license be revoked. As a result, it has changed its name and ownership numerous times in order to stay open legally. A gun shop by the name of Brew City Shooters Supply now resides at its location, owned by the brother of Badger Guns. The shop was also called Badger Outdoors at one point; under that name, it was at times the No. 1 seller of guns used in crimes in the nation, moving 537 guns that were recovered from crimes in 2005 alone, according to the ATF.
"The overwhelming majority of gun dealers are responsible business people who take their responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people very seriously," said Lowy, adding that only about 1 percent of gun dealers sell over 10 or more guns that are recovered in crimes per year.
"Badger sold hundreds," he said. "That tells you a lot."
James Vogts, a lawyer for Badger, did not respond to repeated calls and emails from NBC News for comment, but has told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the owners of Badger Guns and Badger Outdoors took steps to prevent criminals from getting guns. He called the plaintiffs' allegations a smear campaign against the owners.
The two officers weren't the only members of the police force hurt by Badger guns: Between 2007 and 2009, six Milwaukee police officers were injured by guns sold by Badger Guns or Badger Outdoors, according to the suit.
The trial is expected to last for three weeks. In September, regardless of this trial’s outcome, a second case involving two other injured Milwaukee officers is expected to go to trial.
"Gun dealers across the country are on notice now that if they put profits over people and irresponsibly supply the criminal market, we'll seek to hold them accountable," Lowy said.