The trial for a lawsuit between two Milwaukee police officers shot during patrol six years ago and the gun store that sold the weapon used in the shooting finally kicked off Wednesday, with the attorney representing the officers arguing in his opening statement that the sale contained hallmark signs of an illegal gun transaction.
The defense attorney for the West Milwaukee gun shop countered that the straw buyer who bought the weapon and the ultimate shooter, who was also in the store at the time of the straw buyer’s purchase, provided no reasonable suspicion of being involved in an attempt to illegally purchase a firearm.
On June 10, 2009, Julius Burton shot officers Bryan Norberg and Graham Kunisch with a gun purchased by Jacob Collins in a straw buy at Badger Guns the previous month. Burton was sentenced to 80 years in prison, and is currently serving his time at Green Bay Correctional Institute. Collins was sentenced in 2010 to two years in federal prison for illegally purchasing the firearm. Kunisch is no longer a member of the Milwaukee Police Department due to the physical and emotional trauma of the shooting.
The question being posed in Civil Court now before a Milwaukee County jury is whether the gun shop should be held responsible for the shootings because that’s where the straw buyer purchased the weapon. The two officers sued the shop’s owners as well as the owners of the previous store, Badger Outdoors (one of whom is the current owner’s father).
Prior to the 2009 shooting, Badger Guns was ranked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as the nation’s top seller of guns used in crimes that were part of a federal tracing study. Authorities have said that straw buyers are a common way that guns end up in the hands of criminals in Milwaukee.
“Badger Guns knew it had to be vigilant in screening straw buyers,” said attorney Patrick O. Dunphy, the attorney for the police officers.
Dunphy aimed to convince the jury that Badger Guns negligently sold the hand gun used to shoot officers while ignoring all the red flags of a “straw buy” – an instance when someone purchases a gun for an individual who cannot legally buy a gun themselves.
Dunphy told the jury that Collins initially provided contradictory answers about who he was purchasing the gun for on the state and federal forms he filled out in the gun shop. On the state form, Collins wrote “Yes” he was purchasing the gun for himself and did not plan to deliver the weapon to anyone else. However, on the federal form, he initially answered the same question, though differently worded, by writing “No” he was not purchasing the weapon strictly for himself. However, after the salesperson pointed out the discrepancies, Collins changed his answers, Dunphy contended.
Dunphy also pointed out that Collins initially wrote down the wrong street address while filling out the state form, another error he later corrected.
In the opening statement for the owner of Badger Guns, attorney James Vogts told the jury that throughout the case, the plaintiffs and the defense were going to disagree on both what was evidence as well as what the evidence meant.
“At times the truth gets shaded; it’s kind of hard to find,” Vogts said, of sifting through the evidence presented on the now 6-year-old case.
In his opening statement, Vogts pointed to several instances where Collins had trouble filling out the form, including a section where he listed Milwaukee as his country of residence and later scratched it out and wrote “U.S.”
Vogts asserted that Collins did not understand the question on the federal form when he initially said that he was not the intended owner of the hand-gun he was purchasing. He also noted that a psychologist certified that the straw buyer Collins read and comprehended sentences at an early grade school level and was also dyslexic.
Dunphy tried to further his argument that the Collins’ purchase of the handgun six years ago was an obvious straw buy during his opening statement when he showed surveillance footage of Burton motioning to Collins the gun he wanted.
Vogts also showed video footage seeking to prove that at the moment Burton pointed out the handgun he wanted to Collins, the salesperson had his back turned as he was placing a gun on the wall behind him.
Dunphy noted, when the time came to pay for the handgun Collins pulled a wad of $400 from his pocket; however, the bill was $414. At this point, Collins and Burton left the shop and went out into the parking lot and returned in a few minutes with the cash necessary to purchase the gun. Dunphy said the salesperson should have noticed this as another sign of a straw buy.
Vogts mentioned that when Collins produced his identification for the salesperson, he took it out of his pocket, not a wallet.
The trial will continue on Thursday, with the defense calling the salesperson as a first to the witness stand.