Fledgling broadcaster Jessica Ghawi was among twelve people who lost their lives in a July 20, 2012 attack by gunman James Holmes at the Aurora Century 16 theater. Another 58 people were injured.
Now, Ghawi's parents, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, in conjunction with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, are suing several companies that sold Holmes ammunition and other gear. The central assertion: The businesses don't bother to check if buyers like Holmes are possibly homicidal. See the complaint plus additional photos and details below.
The memory of Ghawi, who also used the name Jessica Redfield, is being kept alive by the Jessica Redfield Ghawi Foundation, created to "fund scholarships to support upcoming young sports talent to study journalism." But her own aspirations were cut short when Holmes opened fire on the audience, deploying items he'd purchased online. According to the lawsuit, she was shot six times, including once in the head.
The complaint names Lucky Gunner, owner of BulkAmmo.com, which allegedly sold Holmes more than 4,000 rounds of ammunition; The Sportsman's Guide, provider of another 700 rounds plus a 100-round drum-ammunition magazine; BulletProofBodyArmorHQ.com, the source of body armor he wore; and BTP Arms, from which he bought two canisters of tear gas.
The complaint against these companies sees it as "highly foreseeable to Defendants that their potential customers included persons with criminal intent, including persons such as James Holmes, who was bent on committing a mass assault." Yet even though the firms "established and operated businesses which attracted -- and catered to -- dangerous persons such as Holmes, they failed to implement any reasonable safeguards to prevent dangerous people from obtaining...such materiel online." The system allows them to do so "without any human interaction or screening," the suit goes on.
These assertions don't "challenge the right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms," the document contends. "This lawsuit also does not challenge in any way the right of responsible businesses to operate a business of selling products -- even potentially lethal products -- to law-abiding citizens. This lawsuit is about the unreasonably dangerous operation of businesses that negligently supply combat supplies and other materiel to the criminal market. Negligently supplying dangerous people with the means to engage in mass killings not only causes foreseeable harm (such as the shooting incidents underlying this case), it unfairly tarnishes the right of all law-abiding citizens to bear arms for lawful purposes, including protection, hunting, or other recreational activities." Continue for more about the lawsuit, including more photos and the complete document. The complaint goes on to enumerate the many ways in which Holmes's behavior prior to the shooting signaled that he was unstable and likely to use weapons for horrific purposes. But rather than looking into such a possibility, the suit argues that the companies shrugged off any responsibility. A section pertaining to BulletProofBodyArmorHQ.com reads: "The Defendants designed their websites in such a way that private purchasers could buy military and law enforcement grade accessories and mass quantities of ammunition without the input of any verifiable identification by buyers or sellers or without any mechanisms for identifying and distinguishing private buyers from military and law enforcement buyers."
The Phillips' action is hardly the first of its kind. By January 2013, at least eight lawsuits had been filed in the case, with most of them naming Cinemark for failing to provide proper security at the screening. But these efforts have gone nowhere thus far, and the broadness of the claims in the latest one are likely to make success in Arapahoe County District Court, where it was filed, extremely difficult to obtain.
Of course, the court of public opinion is also in play, as Jonathan Lowry, the Phillips' co-counsel and director of the Brady Center's Legal Action Project, clearly understands. A statement quotes him as saying, "A crazed, homicidal killer should not be able to amass a military arsenal without showing his face or answering a single question, with the simple click of a mouse. If businesses choose to sell military-grade equipment online, they must screen purchasers to prevent arming people like James Holmes. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips have brought this lawsuit to make sellers of lethal arms and military equipment use reasonable care. "
Sandy Phillips strikes a similar note in a statement of her own: "Two years ago when our daughter Jessica was murdered, and we first heard the details of the massacre, I asked my husband: 'How can anyone order over 4,000 rounds of ammunition without raising any red flags? Why weren't any questions asked of the person who bought all of this ammunition?'
"As gun owners, parents, and citizens of this country, we hope that our lawsuit will spare other families the tragedy that we have gone through after the death of our beautiful daughter," she adds.
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Here's the lawsuit.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.