By Annie Sweeney
BYHALIA, Miss. — Four years after a Smith & Wesson .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun was used to kill an off-duty Chicago police officer, the Mississippi pawnshop owner who sold the gun in a straw purchase has agreed to concessions that authorities hope will curb similar illegal gun deals.
The concession to alert authorities about customers who buy multiple handguns, beyond what is required by law, was reached in a federal lawsuit in Mississippi over the slaying of Officer Thomas Wortham IV, attorneys for the Wortham family said. He was an Army National Guard member who had served in Iraq and who — just days before he was fatally shot in Chicago — had become vocal about standing up to street violence in the Chatham community.
Like their son, the Worthams have refused to give up on a community that provided a safe, enriching childhood for their two children. Instead, they committed themselves to fight for change — through community peace nights as well as the lawsuit — to try to keep neighborhoods safe for children who need a place to play.
"We are just trying to move forward now in his memory, to keep his memory alive by trying to keep the same kind of culture in the community, because this is a great place to live," his mother, Carolyn Wortham, said Tuesday afternoon while sitting in a playlot named in honor of her son. "This is a great place to grow up. We want these children to be able to grow up here. ... They don't know what is going on, and so often the children get hurt, they don't see it coming. We didn't see it coming. We were blindsided."
The gun at the center of their lawsuit — allegedly used by Chicago gang members who tried to rob Wortham, 30, of his motorcycle in front of his parents' Chatham home in May 2010 — was purchased at Ed's Pawn Shop and Salvage Yard in Byhalia, Miss. A Chicago gun trafficker, who was enrolled in college in Mississippi, paid cash to a local resident with a clean criminal record to buy the gun for him, authorities said.
Such illegal transactions, called straw purchases, are to blame for a large number of guns that wind up in the hands of Chicago criminals, experts say. Families of victims and advocacy groups have long turned to the courts for relief and to hold gun-makers and sellers accountable for violence. But the gun industry and its lobbying power have proved formidable, experts say.
Gun control advocates said Tuesday's settlement, though, is one of several recent victories. Two similar lawsuits against gun sellers have been cleared for trial in Milwaukee, said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which filed the lawsuit a year ago on behalf of the Wortham family, accusing Ed's Pawn Shop of negligence.
"To reduce the flow of guns to the criminal market, the gun industry needs to be a part of the solution, and stop being a large part of the problem. We have shown the gun industry how gun dealers can and should go beyond the bare minimum in an effort to keep the public safe," Lowy said in a statement.
Gun sellers are required to notify federal authorities when a purchaser buys two or more handguns in one day or within five days. Under the settlement, Ed's Pawn Shop has agreed to report such multiple sales that happen within 30 days. They have also pledged to video-record sales of handguns and to retain a copy for three years.
Any monetary award to the Worthams was not disclosed.
Wortham was leaving his parents' home when he was approached by two gang members wielding the Smith & Wesson as two accomplices waited in a getaway car, authorities allege. Wortham drew his weapon, as did his father — a retired Chicago police officer who witnessed the robbery attempt from inside the house.
In the shootout, Wortham was killed, as was one of the alleged offenders. The three other men were charged with murder and await trial in Cook County.
Victims, big city officials and advocates such as Brady have filed lawsuits against the gun industry since the 1980s. By 2000, 30 cities had brought lawsuits, with Chicago filing one of the first.
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley waged a high-profile, six-year legal battle trying to prove that the firearms industry was responsible for the gun violence here — including its financial toll — because it saturated the market with so many cheap, easily accessible guns that were bound to wind up in the hands of criminals.
The lawsuit was turned back by a 2004 Illinois Supreme Court ruling that said guns cannot be considered a public nuisance. At the same time, legislatures across the country were reacting to the flurry of lawsuits against the gun industry, passing immunity laws in 30 states that protected manufacturers and sellers from being held accountable if guns are used in a crime. A federal immunity law passed in 2005.
"What we are talking about is a near-total shutdown of lawsuits against manufacturers and a very narrow window for lawsuits against retail dealers," said Timothy Lytton, a professor at Albany Law School in New York who has written a book examining the history of lawsuits against the gun industry.
Exceptions were written into the immunity laws that allowed for sellers to be held accountable if they violated a law or were negligent. That allowed victims, such as the Worthams, to bring evidence regarding individual sales and what missteps could have been made during the purchase.
The sale of the gun that killed Wortham happened over a glass counter in a cramped shop on a corner in Byhalia when Mississippi resident Michael Elliott, at the time a young father with a sick daughter, went there to buy three handguns.
A federal investigation found that a stressed-out Elliott, who had no criminal record, signed the required federal form promising the guns were for himself and then promptly turned them over to an acquaintance, Quawi Gates, in exchange for $100 he needed for gas money. Gates, a felon who was enrolled at nearby Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., was running a gun trafficking ring, relying on young college students or vulnerable people such as Elliott to buy his guns, the investigation found.
The ring was busted, in part, after the gun used in Wortham's slaying was traced to Ed's, leading to convictions against both Elliott and Gates, who is still serving a 10-year sentence for gun trafficking.
But the pawnshop faced no criminal charges.
What the Worthams' attorneys intended to prove at trial was that Ed's Pawn Shop ignored critical warning signs, as established within the industry and by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, that Elliott was really a straw purchaser. The lawsuit alleged that
Elliott, as a first-time buyer who paid for several guns with cash, should have been turned away.
'Going To Fix It'
The night he was killed, Wortham had spent several hours with his mom and dad at the Chatham home his grandfather had built and where he grew up, showing them pictures from his recent trip to Washington, D.C., to participate in the annual memorial for slain police officers.
Even as an adult, Wortham's ties to the proud Chatham community remained strong. He had recently joined the advisory council for Nat King Cole Park, which was across the street from his parents' home.
Less than a week before his shooting, he met with a Tribune reporter at Cole to talk about recent shootings there that had forced the shutdown of the basketball hoops. He pledged to do something about the crime.
"It's starting to feel like it's expected in this community," he said at the time. "When people think of the South Side of Chicago, they think violence. In Chatham that's not what we see. ... We're going to fix it, so it doesn't happen again."
Wortham's shooting rattled the community. An intense police investigation followed, leading to charges within a week against Toyious Taylor, Paris McGee and Marcus Floyd, whose cousin was killed in the shooting.
Three years later, the Worthams filed suit against the pawnshop.
"I know that Tommy would have wanted me to fight so that other families would be spared the tragedy ours has suffered," his mother said.
More Shops Sued
Similar cases are now pending across the country. A mother in Odessa, Mo., sued a shop there last month after it sold a handgun to her mentally ill adult daughter — over the distressed woman's warning that her daughter had psychological problems and might use the gun to commit suicide. Within an hour of the sale, the daughter went home and fatally shot her father and then texted her mother: "Dad is dead."
Judges in Milwaukee have cleared the way for two lawsuits against a notorious gun shop. Both suits were filed on behalf of police officers who were shot with guns purchased at the shop.
Lytton, the Albany law professor, said the failure of larger lawsuits against the entire gun industry and the immunity legislation illustrates how difficult it is to seek remedies in court.
But he added that if individual sellers such as a small shop in Mississippi agree to voluntary controls, there could be more lawsuits as a way to achieve some gun control. Payments could also have a ripple effect, he said.
"If (plaintiffs) bring a successful suit, the insurance companies are going to get nervous about these payouts," he said. "And they will urge them to be more careful."
For Carolyn Wortham, the fight is right outside her door, where her son lost his life. "He always said, 'Mom, why would I want to go anywhere else? This is where I grew up. I love this place.'"
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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