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Mt. Pleasant family, friends remember J.R. Gustafson; Brady Center helps in legal fight over his shooting death

April 4, 2018 GMT

Leah Gustafson wiped tears from her eyes Saturday as friends and family gathered at a Mt. Pleasant playground and released a bouquet of orange and blue balloons in memory of her 13-year-old son James Robert “J.R.” Gustafson, who died two years ago in an accidental shooting.

Over the last two years as they grieved their son’s death, Mark and Leah Gustafson watched as court proceedings unfolded against the teen who killed him March 20, 2016, thinking the handgun was empty. They watched as authorities prosecuted two adults charged with failing to secure the gun and a third who failed to file proper paperwork when transferring ownership of the weapon.

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Last week, they filed a lawsuit with the help of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and a Pittsburgh law firm seeking damages from the gun manufacturer and the local store that first sold the firearm.

The suit against Illinois-based Springfield Armory and the Saloom Department Store in Mt. Pleasant claims they made and sold a 9mm semiautomatic handgun without warnings and safety features that could have prevented J.R.’s death. Specifically, they claim the manufacturer was negligent for not installing a feature that would have prevented the gun from firing when the magazine was ejected or a feature that would have alerted a user that a bullet remained chambered when the magazine was ejected.

A man who answered the phone at Saloom Department Store last week declined to comment. A representative for Springfield Armory could not be reached.

The Brady Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, is named for the late James Brady, Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who sustained a life altering brain injury when he was shot during a 1981 assassination attempt on the president.

The Gustafsons’ lawsuit, filed as hundreds of thousands of teens prepared to march on Washington, D.C., Saturday for an end to gun violence that has seeped into schools, is the Brady Center’s most recent volley in a decades-long battle it has waged in courts across the country. Its goal is to halve America’s gun deaths by 2025. An average of 35,000 people die each year from gunshot wounds in the United States, according to federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For over 25 years, the Brady Center has been bringing lawsuits against gun dealers, manufacturers and distributors where they do something wrong with the design of it or do something that causes and contributes to the injury,” said Jonathan Lowry, the center’s vice president for litigation.

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The Gustafsons declined to comment on their lawsuit. Their lawyers stressed it is about a defective product, not gun rights.

“This is not about the Second Amendment. This is about a defective product. A little boy is dead because the manufacturer didn’t make a simple, innocuous fix that could have prevented this,” said Gary Lynch of Carlson Lynch, the Pittsburgh law firm that is representing the Gustafsons along with the Brady Center lawyers.

Although guns were specifically exempted from the 1972 federal Consumer Product Safety Act, the suit alleges the manufacturer is liable and was negligent in not installing longstanding safety devices on the gun, including a magazine disconnect safety, a loaded chamber indicator, an internal lock or warnings — any of which could have prevented J.R.’s death. It claims the manufacturer and the seller failed to inform buyers of the potential risks and benefits of gun ownership.

A device called a magazine disconnect, which prevents a handgun from firing when a bullet remains chambered after the ammunition magazine has been disconnected, has been available for decades, the Gustafsons’ lawyers said.

“The gun industry has known for over a century that many children, as well as adults, are killed with guns that people mistakenly believe are unloaded, and the industry has known that there are simple, inexpensive safety features that could prevent these deaths,” Lowry said.

Back in Mt. Pleasant on Saturday, family members and friends wore T-shirts stamped with angel wings, J.R.’s name and his dates of birth and death as they remembered the boy with big dreams.

“He always wanted to become a fireman. We were waiting for the day when he was old enough to become a junior firefighter,” Mt. Pleasant Assistant Fire Chief Mark Graisinger said, tearfully as he offered a prayer for a boy gone too soon.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.