Carolyn Wortham comforts her husband Thomas Wortham III, as he speaks of their late son, Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham IV, during a news conference on April 24.
Photo credit: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
Mississippi attorney Don Barrett knows well the worries of gun owners. After all, he's one himself.
"We don't want anybody messing with our guns," he said.
But what happened to Thomas Wortham IV is different, says Barrett, who joined with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence to sue a Mississippi pawnshop that sold a handgun used to kill the off-duty Chicago police officer three years ago.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Oxford, Miss., on behalf of Wortham's parents and sister, accused the pawnshop of negligence for failing to recognize clues that the gun's buyer was making an illegal purchase and then blocking the sale.
As proposed new gun legislation roils the country, the lawsuit takes aim instead at current laws that prohibit straw purchasing. In Chicago, these illegal transactions are among the most common ways for convicted felons to get their hands on guns, experts say.
Neither Barrett nor his son, Richard, also an attorney, has any concerns about bringing a case against a gun seller in the heart of the South.
"When I read about this, it made my stomach turn that this shop owner was so lax," said Richard Barrett, like his father a gun owner. "If he had taken care of business, it would not have happened. ... Everybody paints us as a red state, (that) everybody is a hunter and has Hank Williams Jr. playing on all the radios.
"Just because people like guns around here and enjoy hunting doesn't make them devoid of common sense," he said. "We're not bringing this case to change laws. We are bringing this case because Thomas Wortham IV is no longer with us. His family lost him because a pawnshop here in Mississippi put profits over people."
The probe into Wortham's slaying in May 2010 led investigators to a small pawnshop on a corner in Byhalia, Miss.
It was there, at Ed's Pawn Shop and Salvage Yard, that the Smith & Wesson pistol used to kill Wortham was purchased. Quawi Gates, a Rust College student in Holly Springs, Miss., who had a gunrunning operation on the side, had asked an acquaintance, Michael Elliott, if he wanted to make some quick cash.
Gates' criminal record prevented him from buying guns, so he had lined up several college students to make the purchases for him for $50 to $100 a weapon. Elliott was stressed out over his hospitalized infant daughter and agreed to buy three guns for Gates in return for $100.
Wednesday's lawsuit accuses the pawnshop and its owner, Bruce Edward Archer, of failing to follow guidelines established by the gun industry's trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, about how to detect a straw purchaser.
According to the guidelines, gun sellers should fire a battery of questions at buyers who come off as suspicious. Among the red flags are buyers who purchase multiple guns at the same time and pay with cash, the suit says.
Elliott, for instance, paid $1,500 in cash for three guns as a first-time purchaser at Ed's Pawn Shop, according to the suit.
Gun sellers are not under any obligation to complete a sale if they are concerned, said Thomas Ahern, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokesman in Chicago.
"They do not have to make a sale if they feel that it's a straw purchase taking place," Ahern said. "I equate it to a bartender. If a person comes in a bar and he is obviously intoxicated and he has a fistful of money, you could make that sale of a drink. But you have an obligation to refuse service to him to protect your business and the public."
According to the lawsuit, Ed's Pawn Shop sold an a total of eight guns to buyers recruited by Gates for the trafficking scheme.
"Ed's Pawn Shop took no reasonable steps to implement ... reasonable precautions or to otherwise alter their business sales practices to minimize the risk that they would supply the criminal racket," the lawsuit alleges.
Archer could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the lawsuit's allegations.
Also sued were Elliott, who was convicted in Mississippi for making the straw purchase, and Gates, who is serving a 10-year sentence for his role in the gun-trafficking scheme.
Wortham, 30, was shot less than a week after he gave an interview to the Tribune about the rising tide of violence in his Chatham community on Chicago's South Side. He stood in a light rain in Cole Park, where the basketball hoops had been closed because of a spate of shootings, and promised that the historic neighborhood would rise above it.
"It's starting to feel like it's expected in this community," Wortham said then. "When people think of the South Side of Chicago, they think violence. In Chatham, that's not what we see. ... We're going to fix it, so it doesn't happen again."
Six days later that very violence caught him as he left his parents' house.
Two reputed gang members displayed Smith & Wesson guns and demanded Wortham's motorcycle, Cook County prosecutors have said. Wortham pulled his gun and identified himself as an officer, according to police. In seconds, gunfire erupted on the quiet street. Wortham and one offender were fatally wounded.
The Smith & Wesson .45 semi-automatic pistol was recovered at the scene.
Three suspects were later arrested and still await trial.
On Wednesday, Wortham's parents offered heartbreaking memories about their only son, referring to him as "Tommy."
"He was everything we could have hoped for in a son," said his father, Thomas Wortham III. "He was shot and killed right outside my door by criminals who should have never gotten hold of lethal weapons."
The Brady Center has been filing lawsuits against the gun industry for nearly 25 years, calling it a necessary step given the struggle to stop the flow of guns into the hands of criminals, said Jonathan Lowy, its director.
"Our purpose in bringing these cases is to place a price on irresponsible conduct that supplies criminals," Lowy said.
In addition, the city of Chicago filed a sweeping $433 million lawsuit against the firearms industry in 1998 in a bid to recover the costs of gun violence. That same year, relatives of gunshot victims in Chicago also sued the industry. But in 2004 the Illinois Supreme Court dismissed the litigation.
Still, Lowy pointed to recent decisions in Milwaukee in which judges have allowed two lawsuits against Badger Guns to go forward on behalf of four police officers wounded by guns sold in a straw purchase. The company that manufactured the rifle used in the Washington sniper shootings settled with victims for $2.5 million, he said.
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