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Gun industry goes on trial in Appellate Court

ROCHESTER – Danny “Bud” Williams was a 16-year-old basketball phenom when he was shot nine years ago outside his Buffalo home while playing basketball, an innocent victim of gun violence.

Today, Williams, 25, is out of school and working – but he never attained his dream of playing Division I college basketball.

The man who shot Williams, Cornell Caldwell, served his sentence, and was released from prison earlier this year. The gun trafficker who bought the 9mm handgun used in the shooting, James Nigel Bostic, also served his time and has been released from prison.

Still on trial, however, is the gun industry. A debate over whether the gun industry can be held liable for the Williams shooting was played out Friday at the State Appellate Court in Rochester. At issue was whether the case will even be allowed to proceed. The five judges on the court will announce their decision at a future date.

Attorneys for Williams argued the Ohio gun dealer who sold Bostic and his girlfriend the Saturday night special eventually used to shoot Williams, as well as hundreds of other cheap handguns that eventually ended up on the streets of Buffalo, had to have known something illegal was going on.

By allowing Bostic’s girlfriend to be the buyer of record, even though Bostic paid for the guns, the gun dealer was involved in an illegal “straw purchase,” Williams’ attorneys said.

What’s more, the Ohio-based gun manufacturer and distributor also had to know what was going on, the attorneys argued , given the close relationship the two had with each other and with the Ohio gun dealer. Also, the attorneys said, thousands of the inexpensive 9mm Hi-Point brand guns manufactured by Beemiller Inc. and distributed by MKS – the kinds of guns Bostic was buying – have been associated with crimes.

Given that, the attorneys said, the case has the components to move forward, fulfilling the exceptions to a federal law that generally says the gun industry is not responsible when its products are used by criminals.

“Gun manufacturers and distributors are not exempt from liability for negligently entrusting guns to downstream sellers,” the attorneys argued in court papers. They said the gun manufacturer, distributor and dealer “supplied handguns to persons and entities who were likely to, and did, use the handguns in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury to others.”

A lower court was wrong, the attorneys argued, when it ignored those facts, and dismissed the lawsuit Williams and his father, Eddie Williams, filed against Beemiller Inc., the Ohio-based gun manufacturer; MKS, the gun distributor; and Charles Brown, the gun dealer.

But attorneys for the gun industry said the lower court judge, State Supreme Court Justice Frederick J. Marshall, got it right in April 2011 when he dismissed the lawsuit filed by the Williams family. Marshall ruled that the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Acts immunized the gun companies from any liability.

In fact, the gun industry attorneys argued, this is just the kind of case the federal act was designed to have dismissed early on, preventing expensive and prolonged legal actions wrongfully blaming the law-abiding gun industry for the actions of criminals.

The criminals in this case, the gun industry attorneys said, are Bostic and Caldwell – the shooter and the gun trafficker. The gun manufacturer, distributor and dealer are not to blame, the attorneys said.

Authorities investigating the Williams shooting, and the gun-trafficking operation Bostic ran, found no evidence to charge the gun industry with those crimes, the gun industry attorneys said, adding that since the guns were sold in Ohio, New York State has no jurisdiction in the case.

In addition, the gun industry lawyers said, the Williams case not does meet any of the exceptions to the federal law that would allow the case to go forward.

While Williams’ attorneys claim that the gun industry showed criminal negligence by allowing Bostic to purchase the guns from the Ohio gun dealer, the dealer did nothing wrong, said attorney Scott Braun, representing Brown, the gun dealer.

Bostic had told Brown the guns were being purchased for a gun shop Bostic planned to open, Braun said. All the guns Bostic purchased were properly reported by Brown to the federal authorities, as is required for all multiple gun purchases, he said.

Bostic and his girlfriends bought a total of 250 guns from Ohio gun shows in 2000, with about 140 purchased from Brown.

New York State’s gun laws are generally more restrictive than those in Ohio. For example, New York requires a person intending to purchase a handgun to first apply for a permit. The handgun, when purchased, must then be registered with the state. In Ohio, neither the permit nor the registration is required.

The Washington, D.C.-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, as well as Buffalo attorney Terrence Connors, represented Williams in court. Connors and the Brady Center took up Williams’ case after it was featured in a series of articles on gun trafficking The Buffalo News published in 2005.

The News’ series, “The Damage Done,” explained how Williams, then 16 and a star athlete at McKinley High School, was shot in a drive-by shooting near his Girard Place home in 2003. The gunman had mistaken Williams for someone else.

Williams survived the bullet wound that ripped through his stomach, but the injury cut short what many believed was a promising basketball career. Rather than winning a scholarship to a Division I school, Williams attended Erie Community College.

The gun used to shoot Williams was among the 250 Bostic purchased in Ohio. Bostic, a Buffalo native, then sold the handguns on the streets of Buffalo. In addition to the Williams shooting, the guns were tied to a series of other crimes in Buffalo, as well as in other states.

More than 13,000 of Beemiller Inc.’s Hi-Point guns have been used in crimes, according to Williams’ attorneys.

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