INDIANAPOLIS — An Indianapolis police officer shot in the line of duty cannot seek financial damages from the retailer who sold the gun through a "straw" purchaser to a convicted felon who was prohibited from buying it.
In a 3-2 decision, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the state's gun seller immunity statute bars all lawsuits against retailers for damages arising out of the misuse of a firearm — "regardless of the seller's culpability."
Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, a Crown Point native writing for the high court, said the immunity protection, as crafted by the legislature, is clear, unambiguous and applies to both legal and illegal gun sales.
"On its face, this provision forecloses damages claims when a third party's misuse of a firearm injures the plaintiff," Slaughter said. "Nothing in the statute limits its application to situations where a third party obtained the firearm, directly or indirectly, from a lawful sale."
He observed that the federal government and other states, including Colorado, deny gun sellers immunity from financial damages when the retailer knowingly sells a gun in violation of a state or federal law, such as through a straw purchaser.
"These passages reflect a clear legislative judgment to subject firearms sellers that violate the law to tort liability — which is notably absent from Indiana's statute," Slaughter said.
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Justice Robert Rucker, a Gary native, dissented from the court's decision in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Loretta Rush.
Rucker said despite Slaughter's reading of the statute, lawmakers certainly did not plan to immunize gun retailers under all possible circumstances, such as when a purchaser directly tells the gun shop clerk that he's buying a weapon to go on a shooting spree and does.
"It appears to me the statute was designed to protect innocent and unknowing gun sellers from the acts of third parties," Rucker said. "The legislature could not have intended to protect gun sellers from their own illegal acts."
Slaughter said the court's role is not to evaluate the wisdom or folly of the law; only to interpret it consistent with the plain meaning of the words used in the statute.
"The legislature's policy choices, so long as they are constitutional, are beyond our purview," Slaughter said.