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13 Investigates: "The Gun Trail" and immunity for gun sellers

Indiana lawmakers are calling for emergency action. They say going after the gun industry for straw purchases is bad for business. But critics warn Indiana is putting the interest of gun dealers ah...

A fiery debate is playing out at the Statehouse.

At issue, efforts by some lawmakers to protect gun dealers from getting sued for "straw purchases."

13 Investigates first showed you how federal authorities are tracking down the violators putting guns into the hands of convicted felons.

Now, 13 Investigates is back with a controversial bill that some say allows the legislature to overstep its bounds and take away victims' rights.

Sometimes, felons get their hands on stolen weapons, like in the shooting of Gary Police Officer Jeffrey Westerfield.

Court records show a gun purchased in 2013 at Gander Mountain in Castleton was stolen from the owner's truck as he worked at the Bent Tree Apartments on Michigan Road. Less than a year later, that same gun turned up 150 miles away, in Gary, in the hands of the Blount brothers.

Carl Blount, who has a history of domestic violence and battery, is now charged with the murder of Ofc. Westerfield. Investigators say Blount ambushed Westerfield and shot him as he sat in his police cruiser last July.

Sometimes felons walk into gun stores pick out the gun they want in full view, then have friends sign and pay for it.

That's called a "straw purchase" and it's illegal. Illegal for the buyer - and for the gun store, if the store turns a blind eye.

That's what is alleged in a Marion County lawsuit filed by IMPD Ofc. Dwayne "Dewey" Runnels after he was shot by a felon.

"There are police officers all over the country that are being shot and killed by felons with guns," Runnels told 13 Investigates following a roll call at IMPD East District.

Just weeks ago, 13 Investigates showed you how the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) traced crime guns back to suppliers, to help turn up the heat on violators.

The gun in the Runnels case was traced back to Tarus Blackburn. Blackburn admits to making the straw purchase for Demetrious Martin, the convicted felon who opened fire on Runnels.

"I returned fire right then, because I knew when he shot me, he was trying to kill me," Runnels said, recalling the December 2011 shootout.

Now Runnels is at the center of a landmark legal case against KS&E Sports. The lawsuit alleges KS&E was negligent and allowed Martin and Blackburn to complete the straw purchase. A Marion County court recently gave Runnels the go ahead with his case despite a state law that gives gun dealers immunity if laws are followed during a sale.

"It's really based on what they knew, what they observed," explained attorney and gun safety expert Guy Relford.

Now, some Indiana lawmakers are declaring an emergency and pushing new legislation to strengthen Indiana's immunity laws by providing potential protection to keep gun stores and manufacturers from getting sued.

Senate Bill 98 takes aim at a lawsuit in Gary. Senator Jim Tomes, a Republican from Wadesville in Posey County, is the bill's sponsor. Tomes says the Gary lawsuit is keeping gun manufacturers from potentially setting up shop in Indiana.

Critics say the proposal oversteps its bounds and puts the interest of the gun industry ahead of the courts and the basic rights of Hoosiers to take legal action.

"This is a jobs bill. This is a multi-million dollar industry," Tomes argued before a Senate Committee. "Whether you like guns or not is indifferent. We're talking about a jobs bill, an economic boom to our state."

"It's totally ridiculous," said Paul Helmke.

The former Mayor of Fort Wayne is also a past president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington D.C. He says he understands what's at stake.

Tomes wants to make Indiana's immunity statute retroactive in order to force the courts to dismiss the 1999 lawsuit filed by the City of Gary against eleven manufacturers and several retailers.

"It's been laying there liked a beached whale, and it's starting to stink," said Tomes, as he urged support from the Indiana Senate.

The Gary lawsuit claims the retailers have become a public nuisance; having "knowingly sold to illegal buyers in straw purchases." It goes on to say the manufacturers also "know of the illegal retail sales" and have the ability to change the system to prevent it, but "have intentionally failed to do so."

Tomes says Senate Bill 98 do away with the 16-year-old lawsuit.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson takes exception to the legislative body stepping into the judicial branch to dismiss a case.

"To think that they would look at something that is already pending (in court)," Freeman-Wilson said with disbelief, "when you balance that against the bloodshed and the violence that is actually occurring."

Helmke, an attorney who now teaches Civics and Policy at Indiana University, believes immunity for the gun industry is a bad idea.

"It just doesn't make sense to me. We've got concerns with crime across our state," he told 13 Investigates. "One of the things we have to do is make it harder for dangerous people to get guns. To say that this industry is above the law, I think is wrong and it sends the wrong message."

"I think the process of holding somebody else responsible for the corrupt actions of other people is a horrible idea and a horrible policy," said Tomes, defending his position.

He believes gun sellers who don't follow the rules can be legally addressed by federal law.

"I'm the mother of five children," said Dr. Jody Lynee Madeira, a law professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. "I really want to keep bad guns off the streets. I want to keep bad gun sellers, crime gun sellers, I want to keep their businesses shuttered."

Madeira was among the opposition who testified at the Statehouse against the legislation. She is concerned about the timing of the proposal.

"This particular legislation seems to be targeted towards pending cases," Madeira told 13 Investigates.

Not just in Gary, but in Marion County where Officer Runnels' case against KS&E could set a precedent.

Advocates like Edmond Smith with Hoosiers Concerned About Gun Violence are also concerned about the retroactive impact of the proposed immunity statute on the Runnels case.

"Officer Runnels deserves his day in court!" said Smith emphatically.

Attorneys for KS&E are now asking the Indiana Court of Appeals to overturn the Marion County decision claiming the gun store has immunity.

At Tim's Shooting Academy in Westfield, gunshots ring out as Guy Relford provides instruction.

"This really isn't the NRA coming in here and stomping its boot," he told 13 Investigates, referring to the proposed legislation.

Relford, a member of the NRA, says he's concerned about guns in the wrong hands, too. But as an attorney, he questions where to draw the line when it comes to holding gun stores accountable for straw purchases.

He's worried Indiana could create a dangerous precedent.

"If a retailer or manufacturer follows the law and somebody in between commits a crime, let's hold the person who commits the crime responsible," he said.

Those opposing the lawsuit have no problem with going after the criminals. Helmke says Indiana needs to make sure it's sending a strong message all the way around.

"Most gun dealers follow the law, but if we allow a few rotten gun dealers to get away with basically supplying guns to gangs, supplying guns to felons, supplying guns to dealers and then getting the protection of the Indiana legislature, all of us should be angry," Helmke said.

The enhanced immunity law aimed at the Gary lawsuit passed out of the Senate with huge Republican support. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives.

The Indiana Court of Appeals just accepted jurisdiction on the Runnels case. That court will now decide whether or not to uphold the Marion County Court's decision to allow the lawsuit against KS&E to proceed.

If the Appeals Court finds Runnels has special exceptions, his case won't be impacted. If the court sides with KS&E, the Runnels case could be subject to Indiana's immunity bill. Plenty of legal minds will be watching.

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