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Sniper victim families sue gun maker, retailer

By Christy Oglesby

Denise Johnson, wife of sniper victim Conrad Johnson, holds a photo of the two of them at a Thursday news conference.

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(CNN) -- Relatives of two men killed during the series of sniper killings in the Washington, D.C. area filed suit Thursday against the gun dealer and manufacturer of the rifle used in the attacks.

The plaintiffs are the relatives of James Buchanan, Jr. -- a 39-year-old landscaper killed October 3, 2002 -- and Conrad Johnson, a 35-year-old bus driver and father of two killed October 22, 2002. Both men were killed in Montgomery County, Maryland, during the string of shootings that left 10 people dead and three wounded.

The claim, filed in Washington state for an unspecified amount, charges that the defendants "have intentionally and willfully chosen to sell and distribute firearms in a grossly negligent manner that circumvents established laws and policies of the United States and the State of Washington that are intended to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous persons."

John Lee Malvo, 17, and John Allen Muhammad, 42, are defendants in the sniper shootings that terrorized Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia during most of October. Investigators also have linked the pair to killings in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Washington state.

Law enforcement officials have said ballistic evidence indicates that the person who shot the victims used a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S .223 caliber semi-automatic assault rifle -- the same weapon that police recovered when they arrested Malvo and Muhammad at a highway rest stop October 24, 2002.

The lawsuit claims Muhammad and Malvo got a Bushmaster rifle from Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington, the city where both men lived just before starting a trek to the East Coast.

Paul Luvera, a Seattle-based attorney who filed suit on behalf of the relatives, said Bushmaster and distributors should have stopped doing business with Bull's Eye because audits by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showed the store routinely lost track of weapons.

"If they did not know the record of the Bull's Eye retailer, then they certainly were negligent because it was a very blatant, shoddy business that was being conducted insofar as the inventory of rifles was concerned," Luvera said. "If they did know about it, then most assuredly they have an obligation to withhold the sale and to require them to monitor correctly the sale and the inventory of their weapons."

The suit, filed in the Superior Court of Pierce County, Washington, names Bull's Eye, Bushmaster Firearms, Inc., Malvo, Muhammad, an unknown distributor and Bull's Eye's three owners as defendants. The victims' relatives are represented by the Washington D.C.-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control advocacy group.

Allen W. Faraday, vice president of administration and human resources at Bushmaster Firearms Inc., issued a written statement that defended the company and questioned the legitimacy of the lawsuit.

"We absolutely do not feel that this lawsuit is legitimate," Faraday said. "There are many well-financed anti-gun groups that take advantage of a heinous crime to push their anti-gun agenda in an attempt to take firearms away from law-abiding citizens of this country."

Faraday said the company sold the rifle legally to a licensed firearms dealer and "then it was allegedly stolen. Very disturbed people then used it in a heinous crime."

The three owners named in the suit did not immediately return a request for comment.

The suit states that "Bull's Eye ran its gun store in such a grossly negligent manner that dozens of its guns routinely 'disappeared' from its store, and it kept such shoddy records that it could not even account for the Bushmaster assault rifle when asked by federal agents for records of sale for the weapon. At least 238 guns 'disappeared' from Bull's Eye in the last three years alone."

The weapon's potential demands better record keeping, Luvera said. "This was a very deadly weapon designed for combat use, highly lethal, military copy. It was an assault weapon used for sniper purposes," Luvera said. "It has no legitimate purposes in terms of hunting, self protection, sports. It has a function which represents a unique threat to public safety."

Washington state law forbids the plaintiffs from seeking a specific amount in damages.

"We will make our decision as we get closer to trial," Luvera said. "We will ask the jury award a verdict of a size that clearly says to the gun industry that the public will not tolerate the kind of shoddy practice that was involved in this case."

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