In a video posted to Facebook last December, a bearded young man named Matthew J. Nadolski stands behind the counter at Westforth Sports, a gun shop in Gary. With a wall of rifles to his back and a glass case of revolvers in front of him, Nadolski describes the store as family owned and operated since 1957, then apprises that it sells weapons for home defense, self-defense, hunting, and “teaching an Eagle Scout to shoot.”
Just a folksy neighborhood gun dealer, right? The City of Chicago doesn’t think so. Last year, the city’s lawyers noticed that an Indiana man facing federal charges for lying to obtain a firearm had purchased 19 guns at Westforth Sports. Seven of those weapons were recovered in Chicago, including one at the scene of a shooting.
So along with Everytown Law, a New York nonprofit dedicated to aiding gun control cases, the city is now suing Westforth Sports, alleging that the store knowingly sells guns to individuals who intend to resell them just across the state line in Chicago.
Chicago isn’t the first city to sue a gun dealer, but if the lawsuit is successful, it would be the first in recent history to win such a case. “We want them to comply with the law,” Stephen J. Kane, an attorney with the city’s Department of Law, says of Westforth. “You’ve got a business that is just time and time again selling guns to these straw purchasers who are reselling them to people who can’t buy the guns legally, and then we get the guns ending up on our city streets. The goal is really to stop Westforth from selling to straw purchasers, and if we succeed, maybe that’ll have a deterrent effect on other gun stores, too.”
According to the suit, which was filed in late April in the Chancery Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, between 2009 and 2016 Westforth Sports was responsible for more than 850 guns recovered in Chicago that were associated with crimes, more than any other out-of-state supplier. “Westforth is known to have sold at least 180 guns to at least 40 people later charged with federal crimes in connection with these purchases,” the complaint reads.
Like mayors before her, Lori Lightfoot contends that the fact that Illinois is surrounded by states with lax gun laws contributes to the city’s crime problem. Indiana and Wisconsin, for example, do not require residents to carry firearm owner’s identification cards. As Lightfoot tweeted at Texas senator Ted Cruz after he claimed Chicago is proof that gun control doesn’t work, “60% of illegal firearms recovered in Chicago come from outside IL — mostly from states dominated by coward Republicans like you who refuse to enact commonsense gun legislation.” Can going after a single gun dealer actually solve that problem? Or is Lightfoot just looking to scapegoat an out-of-state company for Chicago’s violence?
According to the complaint, Westforth has been cited 39 times for violating Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regulations. Twice, ATF regulators recommended revoking its license but were overruled by their superiors. So the sales continue. A recent investigation by USA Today found that the ATF almost never penalizes or shuts down dealers.
That’s another reason Chicago felt compelled to go to court, says Alla Lefkowitz, an attorney with Everytown Law: “The ATF has not done its job here. There have been a number of warnings that have been given to Westforth throughout the years, and it essentially resulted in a slap on the wrist.” The store should have identified “telltale signs of straw purchasing,” says Lefkowitz, such as a buyer returning repeatedly to purchase the same weapon or paying cash for multiple Glocks.
In addition to seeking unspecified financial damages from Westforth, the city is asking that the store submit to five years of supervision by a court-appointed special master who will monitor its sales practices, that it pay for “mandatory training of all personnel,” and that it post bonds that will be forfeited in the event of future violations. Reached by phone, Westforth Sports owner Earl Westforth declined to comment on the case. A message on the store’s Facebook page told customers, “We all appreciate your support here even if I’m very picky about what I say right now.”
If Chicago wins, it could spur similar action elsewhere, Lefkowitz predicts: “When other cities see one city bringing a successful lawsuit, that may inspire them to look at other bad actors in this area.”
Lawsuits against the gun industry are rare because they’re difficult to win. Last year, Kansas City, Missouri, also aided by Everytown Law, sued a gun shop there called Jimenez Arms, charging that it was part of a gun-trafficking scheme. That was the first time a city had sued the gun industry in more than a decade, officials there claimed. The shop’s owners declared bankruptcy, then received a new ATF license under a different name. Kansas City is now suing the ATF to revoke the license.
Joseph Blocher, a law professor at Duke University and codirector of its Center for Firearms Law, thinks Chicago’s case faces several obstacles, particularly the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 federal statute that protects gun manufacturers and dealers from liability for crimes committed with the weapons they sell. A lawsuit against the company that sold a gun to the man who in 2012 killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater was dismissed under that law. (Lefkowitz contends that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act does not apply in this case, because the city claims Westforth violated ATF regulations.)
In 2015, the Coalition for Safe Chicago Communities sued the villages of Riverdale and Lincolnwood in an attempt to force them to adopt stricter regulations for gun shops. A Cook County judge dismissed that case, ruling the Chicago-based group lacked standing to file a suit because it failed to “establish that the defendants’ regulation of firearms dealers has resulted in the disproportionate level of gun violence in the neighborhoods in which plaintiffs reside.”
Even if it prevails in this suit, Chicago will still be an island of gun control surrounded by a sea of Second Amendment permissiveness. No longer, though, will the gun industry be immune from responsibility for selling its product to criminals.
Where Chicago’s Crime Guns Come From
Only 40.4 percent of seized firearms were bought in Illinois. Other big source states:
Source: Chicago Police Department’s 2017 Gun Trace Report