Outdoor Store Sued by Slain N.Y. Firefighters' Families

The families of four New York state firefighters are suing St. Paul-based Gander Mountain, alleging that the retailer’s Rochester, N.Y.-area outlet could have prevented a “straw buyer” from purchasing the rifle that was turned over to a convicted killer and used on Christmas Eve 2012 to kill two firefighters and wound two others.

The lawsuit, which has the legal heft of prominent gun control advocates behind it, said the rifle used in the bloody ambush should never have been sold to 22-year-old Dawn Nguyen in 2010 with the eventual shooter at her side.

Along with payment to the families of punitive and compensatory damages, the suit seeks to have Gander Mountain reform its practices and employee training procedures to prevent these “straw purchasers.” The suit was filed Tuesday in state court in Rochester, N.Y.

William Spengler, 61, torched his home and ambushed emergency responders, fatally shooting West Webster firefighters Tomasz Kaczowka and Michael Chiapperini and wounding Ted Scardino and Joseph Hofstetter.

Shortly before setting the fire, Spengler used a handgun to kill his sister in the childhood home they shared. He shot and killed himself later that morning.

The families said in a joint statement that they originally believed the four had been shot in “yet another random act of violence … But as time went by, new and very troubling facts emerged. These facts suggest that the loss we have endured could have been avoided. If only the store had acted responsibly.”

The statement added that the families support the constitutional rights of gun owners, and “some of us, in fact, own guns … But we also believe that companies who make it their business to sell guns must do so in a responsible and lawful manner. And when sellers fall short in their responsibility, they should be held accountable.”

Jess Myers, spokesman for the nation’s largest outdoors outfitter, said, “We are just hearing about it this morning and have not gotten a great deal of information or had an opportunity to review it, so Gander Mountain has nothing to say on the matter at this point.”

The suit spells out that Nguyen entered Gander Mountain with Spengler, who was prohibited from owning firearms after his conviction for killing his 92-year-old grandmother with a hammer. Nguyen, his neighbor, filled out the required state and federal forms identifying herself as the purchaser and paid $1,500 in cash for a rifle and a shotgun.

Also named as defendants are Spengler’s estate and Nguyen. She was convicted in April of falsifying a firearms form when she bought the guns. She was sentenced Monday to at least 16 months in prison.

The families’ legal team in this action includes the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which was founded in 1974 as the National Council to Control Handguns and has for decades been lobbying for stricter gun laws.

Its name changed upon Jim and Sarah Brady becoming members in the mid-1980s. Brady, while White House press secretary, was shot and permanently paralyzed in 1981 during the assassination attempt on the President Ronald Reagan.

“Gun dealers have a responsibility to ensure they are selling guns to people legally entitled to purchase them,” said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project and co-counsel for the families and surviving firefighters. “Just like a bar has a responsibility not to sell alcohol to minors, Gander Mountain has a responsibility not to sell firearms to convicted criminals.”

Gander Mountain’s staff should have known that the purchase was being made for someone who was barred from possessing firearms, the suit continued, pointing out that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has warned that indicators of a straw purchase include multiple firearms being bought in one purchase, more than one person entering the store together and purchases made with cash.

 

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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©2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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