Original article available online through Daily Press.
In what is believed to be the first such verdict in the United States, a Virginia Beach jury ruled Thursday that an Isle of Wight gun store must pay $100,000 to the family of a woman murdered by a handgun sold from the store.
The jury decided the Guns Unlimited clerk who sold the semiautomatic pistol should have suspected it would end up illegally in the hands of then 15-year-old Nicholas Elliott, not the hands of an older relative who chauffeured the youth to the store, paid for the gun with Elliott’s money and then signed the federal paperwork.
Less than three months later, on Dec. 16, 1988, Elliott loaded the Cobray M-11 pistol with a 32-bullet magazine and went on a bloody rampage at his school, Atlantic Shores Christian Academy, murdering teacher Karen Farley.
Dennis Henigan, director of the Center To Prevent Handgun Control, which tracks gun control issues nationwide, said Thursday’s verdict is the first he knows of in which a store is held liable for damages resulting from a “straw purchase.” In straw purchases, someone buys a weapon merely to hand it over to someone else forbidden by law to buy or possess that weapon.
William Farley, the victim’s husband, said he was “absolutely” pleased with the verdict and the damages.
“We weren’t in it just for the money,” he said. “We wanted to alert gun store owners they need to be responsible.”
Nevertheless, Farley’s attorney, Randy Singer, requested a hearing with another jury to redetermine the damages award without retrying the case. Singer was hired on a contingency basis and will be paid with a percentage of the final judgment, Farley said.
Guns Unlimited’s attorney, Peter C. Manson Jr. said there was almost no chance of the judge granting that request. Manson plans to appeal the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Circuit Judge John K. Moore, who presided over the four-day case, set Feb. 21 to hear arguments on those motions.
In ruling for the Farley family, the jury also decided that the shooting spree was a “foreseeable” result of Elliott receiving the gun.
Williams served 15 months in prison for his part in providing the weapon to Elliott, who as a minor could not legally possess it. Elliott, now 19, is in jail, serving the remainder of a life-plus-114-year sentence for Farley’s murder.
Straw purchases, like the one between Williams and Elliott, are a “tremendous problem,” Henigan said. “We feel it’s high time for gun dealers to recognize their responsibility to the community to stop arming children and to stop arming criminals.”
Thursday’s verdict, Henigan said, is a big step in that direction.
Reaching such a verdict was easy, according to two jurors as they left the courthouse about 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
Two days of often conflicting testimony had presented various versions of Elliott’s and Williams’ visit to Guns Unlimited, on Highway 17 in Carrollton.
Most versions, however, agreed that the youth and his relative arrived at the store together, that Elliott did much of the talking with store clerk Tony Massengill, that Elliott chose the weapon and that Elliott handed Williams $300 for the purchase only a few feet away from the display counters.
“It wasn’t difficult to decide,” said juror Mary McFetridge, “not on the negligence.”
A second juror, Yvonne Pettepit agreed, adding that she would like to see gun stores removed from Virginia altogether.
McFetridge and Pettepit said the jury of six women and a man spent most of their 2 1/2 hours behind closed doors deciding the more difficult issue of how much Guns Unlimited should pay to Farley’s husband and children.
The $100,000 total the jurors decided upon, with $20,000 going to Farley’s husband, William Farley, and $40,000 each going to her teen-age children, Lora and William Jr., was far less than the $3 million requested in the Farleys’ suit.
James S. Dick, owner of Guns Unlimited, said the relatively low damages awarded by the jury, damages he said his insurance will cover, indicated the jury’s decision was “a sympathy verdict.”
McFetridge said the jury decided Elliott’s mother was responsible, as well, for having bought bullets for her son’s gun, that clerk Tony Massengill was responsible for making the sale and that Atlantic Shores Christian Academy, the Virginia Beach school where Elliott studied and Farley taught, should have been more vigilant in matters such as checking students’ lockers.