Judge Hears Arguments in Gun Store Lawsuit
Attorneys for a Connecticut gun store argued Monday in Hartford Superior Court for the dismissal of a lawsuit against the store, which has been accused of supplying a firearm to the perpetrator of a 2007 murder.
The suit was lodged by the family of Jennifer Magnano who, despite obtaining a restraining order against her husband Scott Magnano, was murdered by him with a semiautomatic Glock obtained at the Sportsman’s Outpost store in Wolcott. Scott Magnano turned the gun on himself after shooting her.
Jennifer Magnano had left the state with her three children but was ordered to return for a court hearing when she was killed. That incident resulted in the passage of the 2008 “Jen’s Law,” which authorizes Superior Court judges to allow witness testimony in domestic violence cases be taken outside the designated court in certain circumstances.
On Monday defense lawyer Christopher Renzulli argued that the suit should be dismissed because of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was passed by Congress in 2005 to shield the fire arms industry from being bankrupted by civil actions resulting from criminal fire arms use. As a result, Connecticut courts would have no jurisdiction to even address the case, he said.
“PLCAA goes directly to the heart of the jurisdiction here. Congress was clear, these cases must be dismissed,” Renzulli told Judge Robert Shapiro.
The lawsuit is exactly the sort of civil action Congress was trying to prevent when they adopted the law, he said.
Lead plaintiff attorney Daniel Vice, of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, argued that the case fell within exceptions to that law. But according to Renzulli it would only apply in cases where some sort of violation on the part of the store was the principal cause of the murder. It would also only apply in the case of a gun sale.
The defense repeatedly argued that Scott Magnano had stolen the murder weapon from the store.
“It’s clear—Scott stole that pistol,” Renzulli said, adding that the theft was reported to the police.
However, the gun wasn’t reported stolen until a day after reporting statutes dictate, Vice said.
“Why wait three days to report it if he stole that gun?” he asked. “It’s shocking but it’s also illegal. Every second they waited, law enforcement lost leads.”
If the gun store violated the law, they shouldn’t be seeking protection under the law, Vice said.
But the defense later downplayed the consequences of waiting to report the theft. One day would not have made a difference, he said.
Much of the plaintiff’s case revolved around the store’s failure to run a background check or even ask to see Magnano’s driver’s license. Had they, they might have realized that Magnano was a dangerous person who should not be handling a firearm, he said. But Renzulli argued that doing a background check or asking for his license would have been against the law if he wasn’t trying to purchase a weapon.
“I don’t have to walk into a store and show a license and say, ‘I want to look at guns,’” he said. “That’s not the law.”
But Vice said that it should have been common sense not to hand Magnano the gun and the ammunition without checking his identification and then leave him alone with them.
“If you see someone impaired and you hand them the keys to your car, you shouldn’t be surprised when he drives away,” he said.
Renzulli later dismissed the metaphor as irrelevant, saying, “I don’t even know where that came from, Your Honor.”
U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Lesley Farby, who was present as an intervening party, supported Renzulli’s motion to dismiss the case for the sole purpose of defending the Constitution, she said. Farby said that similar cases challenging the PLCAA have ultimately sided with the law.
She used the 2008 case, City of New York v. Beretta, as one example. In that suit the city attempted to claim damages from the gun manufacturer Beretta due to a large number of their weapons being used in crimes. Ultimately, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Beretta and dismissed the case citing the PLCAA.
“Your Honor, none of the arguments here provide a basis for deviating from the decision of the 2nd Circuit,” she said.
Vice seemed hesitant to challenge the Congressional act directly but said the Beretta case wasn’t a comparable example. That addressed a much broader case where the city wanted to sue the manufacturer as a nuisance because of the amount of guns flooding the streets, he said. When Congress passed the law, they never intended to strip away the rights of someone directly harmed by violence to bring claims against those responsible, he said.
Vice said the case needs to be allowed to move forward as many of the questions around it, including the intent of the store clerk who put the weapon on the counter and walked away from Magnano, need to be discussed during the discovery phase of the trail.
“Jen did everything she could do to make sure he couldn’t get a gun,” Vice said.
Renzulli acknowledged that Jennifer Magnano had utilized every legal means she could to protect herself and her family.
“I agree that Jennifer did everything in her power to make sure Scott did not buy a gun. Unfortunately, Jennifer could not prevent him from stealing one,” he said.
When all sides had presented their arguments, Shapiro said the court would review them and come to a ruling on the motion within 120 days.
Standing outside the courtroom after the hearing Jennifer Magnano’s daughter Jessica Rosenbeck, 25, said she was hopeful the judge wouldn’t dismiss the case but seemed put off by a lot of what she heard from the defense.
“I found some of the things he said to be pretty crude,” she said, adding that it seemed like Renzulli was making excuses for the gun store.
Dangerous people like her late step father should not be allowed to handle guns, she said. They put ammo and a gun down in front of him and walked away, she said.
“If you walked in to Tiffany’s and asked to look at a wedding ring, they’re not going to hand it to you then walk away from you,” she said.