The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of the firearms classified website Armslist on Tuesday when it held that, as a matter of law, Armslist could not be liable for the criminal acts of a person who illegally acquired a firearm using the Armslist website. Alex Vesely, with the support of the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project, sued Armslist on behalf of his sister Jitka, who was killed by Demetry Smirnov using a handgun that had been advertised on Armslist.
Armslist only offers its website as a location for classified ads, it does not facilitate sales or offer vetting services for buyers or sellers. This fact is made clear to each user who must agree to these terms before accessing the website.
Despite this limited role, the Brady Center’s lawyers claimed that “Armslist owed a duty to the public, including Jitka, to operate its website, armslist.com, in a commercially reasonable manner”, and that Armslist “design[ed] its website to encourage its users to circumvent existing gun laws, . . . by easily enabling prospective purchasers to search for and find gun sellers in any and all states.” Judge Michael Kanne, writing for a unanimous panel, found that even if everything the Brady Center had alleged was true, they had failed to allege sufficient facts to show that Armslist could be found negligent.
Rejecting Brady’s argument was easy for the court because contrary to Brady’s claims, Armslist had taken many steps to ensure that its users followed applicable state and federal firearms laws. The court noted that each user was required to agree to a standard set of terms, including:
I understand that ARMSLIST DOES NOT become involved in transactions between parties and does not certify, investigate, or in any way guarantee the legal capacity of any party to transact.
I am responsible for obeying all applicable enforcement mechanisms, including, but not limited to federal, state, municipal, and tribal statutes, rules, regulations, ordinances, and judicial decisions, including compliance with all applicable licensing requirements.
If I am unsure about firearms sales or transfers, I will contact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives at 1-800-ATF-GUNS and visit the ATF website at http://www.atf.gov.
With such terms, it’s difficult to understand how Brady’s lawyers could claim that Armslist “design[ed] its website to encourage its users to circumvent existing gun laws.” And, to anyone even remotely familiar with the firearms industry, the idea that interstate advertising of firearms sales somehow shows intent to violate the law is absurd. As was noted by the district court that also found against Brady, interstate sales are perfectly lawful as long as the firearm is transferred through a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) in the buyer’s state. Such transactions are so commonplace that many FFLs advertise the fee charged for these transfers.
In finding against Brady, the court followed the long established rule that a person cannot be liable for a third party’s criminal act absent some special relationship, and no special relationship was created by Armslist simply offering a classified advertising service. Brady’s legal theory would have potentially made newspapers, websites and bulletin board owners liable anytime someone used a classified service to help carry out a criminal act or, more likely, Brady hoped that the court would find a “gun exception” to traditional tort law rules. Given the rejection of their gun-control agenda in legislatures across the country, dubious legal theories may be all that remain to the Brady Campaign.