State Supreme Court Hears Gun Liability Case Involving Brookfield Spa Shooting

Shooter Who Killed Spouse And 2 Others Bought Gun Through Website Facing Suit

Wisconsin Supreme Court
Photo Phiend (CC-BY-NC-ND)

The state’s highest court heard oral arguments in a case Thursday that could determine whether a website showing classified ads for guns can be held liable for a deadly shooting by a domestic abuser who couldn’t legally have a firearm.

The case has drawn national interest from gun safety organizations, domestic violence groups, doctors, the tech industry and members of Congress who wrote a federal law which shields website operators from liability for user content.

At issue is whether Armslist LLC can be held legally responsible for a 2012 shooting at Azana Spa and Salon in Brookfield that left four dead. The daughter of one of the victims brought the lawsuit. It was dismissed at the circuit court level but an appeals court allowed the case to go forward, ruling the federal Communications Decency Act didn’t provide immunity in this case.

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In oral arguments before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the attorney representing Armslist said the appeals court was wrong because federal law protects content on websites to promote freedom of speech.

“This value is granted first position in the Bill of Rights and represents a hallowed societal consensus transcending the facts of individual cases and providing a guiding light even in tragic cases like this one,” said James Goldschmidt of Quarles & Brady law firm.

But attorneys for the plaintiff argued there should be no federal protection under the Communications Decency Act because of how Armslist designed and ran its website with the intent, they said, of “cornering the illegal market.” Attorney Jonathan Lowy told the court that under the website’s terms of service, the company alerted users it would not investigate any illegal conduct.

“Armslist wrote that. They posted it on their website. It was basically a statement to illegal gun buyers and sellers that this website is a safe place where no one will bother you,” said Lowy, vice president of litigation for the Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence.

According to court records, the shooter, Radcliffe Haughton, arranged to purchase a handgun and three high-capacity magazines on Armslist one day before shooting Zina Daniel Haughton and two of her co-workers. He then killed himself. Haughton was under a domestic violence restraining order at the time that prevented him from legally obtaining a gun.

There is no account registration on Armslist and a user can remain anonymous. The suit filed by Daniel Houghton’s daughter, Yasmeen Daniel, argues that Armslist designed its website to cater to illegal purchases and those wishing to acquire weapons without a background check, not only violating federal law but also circumventing Wisconsin’s 48-hour waiting period law which was then in place.

Attorneys for the American Medical Association filed an amicus brief in the case supporting Daniel, saying, “The American Medical Association can continue to present common sense recommendations with the goal of eliminating preventable firearm deaths, but these efforts are undermined if firearms are allowed to pass untraced from individual to individual, without regard to enacted law.”

Weighing in on the other side was the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Placing liability on Armslist in this case would not only conflict with the plain text and purpose of the (Communications Decency Act), but it would also severely undercut the essential role online platforms play in fostering modern political and social discourse,” stated the Foundation’s amicus brief.

Groups against domestic violence are also watching the case closely, saying the court’s decision could have life and death consequences for victims of domestic abuse.

“Guns are consistently the most common weapon in domestic violence homicides. They account for more killings than all other weapons combined,” said Patti Seger, executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, in a statement.

Chief Justice Patience Roggensack said interest in the case was apparent because so many amicus, or friend of the court, briefs had been filed.

“This is a very important case in this day and age,” Roggensack said at the conclusion of oral arguments.

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