The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the popular gun exchange website, Armslist.com, for facilitating an illegal gun sale involving a stalker who used the firearm he purchased from a man in Washington state to murder his ex-girlfriend.
The Brady Center along with the Chicago law firm of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C., is representing the family of the victim, 36-year-old Jitka Vesel, in the suit.
“Responsible gun sellers and web site operators, like most Americans, recognize that guns should be sold with the greatest care, to prevent arming dangerous people with the means to kill,” said the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project Director, Jonathan Lowy, in a press release on Wednesday.
“Gun sellers and web site operators who facilitate the arming of killers and criminals must be held accountable,” Lowy continued. “We as a nation are better than an anonymous Internet gun market where killers and criminals can easily get guns.”
On April 13, 2011, Dmitry Smirnov – a Russian immigrant who was living in Canada – shot Vesel a dozen times with a .40-caliber handgun near a parking lot in a Chicago suburb.
Weeks earlier, the jilted lover drove to Washington State to purchase the firearm from an unscrupulous private seller who agreed to sell Smirnov the firearm despite the fact that it was against federal law to sell the handgun to an out-of-state resident. Smirnov paid the seller, Benedict Ladera, an extra $200 to look the other way.
Now, because Smirnov found Ladera on Armslist, the Brady Campaign alleges that the website is culpable for the death of Vesel and that the website’s design “encourages and enables users to evade laws that allow private sellers to sell firearms only to residents of their own state by enticing prospective buyers to search for and find gun sellers throughout all 50 states.”
So, the question is: does the civil case have any real merit?
“It would be an uphill battle for someone to prevail in a lawsuit against this website, but it’s not impossible,” Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, told The Huffington Post. “In the end, it will be about their [Armslist's] awareness of the users and whether they’re aiding and abetting criminal activity.”
Paulson said that the “Hit Man” case is Brady Center’s only hope. In the “Hit Man” case, a federal judge allowed family members of victims to sue a book publisher (Paladin Press) for releasing a book, “Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors,” that the killer had read before he murdered the victims.
Law Professor Eugene Volokh also addressed this case on his blog, the Volokh Conspiracy, in a rather in-depth way (to read his complete legal analysis click here). Though, his conclusion was essentially, “Armslist, like Craigslist providing its “adult services” category or Backpage.com doing the same, can’t be sued based on the conduct of their advertisers.”
As for the people actually responsible for the death of Ms. Vesel, they’re both behind bars. The seller, Ladera, pleaded guilty to the illegal transfer of a firearm and was sentenced to one year in prison and Smirnov was given life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Moving forward, we’ll be keeping a close eye on the developments of this case.