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Can a gun shop be held responsible for customer crimes?

Two police officers shot in the line of duty want the owners of a gun store to be held liable for the harm inflicted on them. 

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Brew City Shooter's Supply Inc., formerly known as Badger Guns, in Milwaukee is shown, Jan. 10, 2011. Two seriously wounded Milwaukee police officers brought suit against Badger, a Wisconsin gun shop that they say has sold hundreds of weapons used in crimes. The potentially precedent-setting case hinges on whether the gun shop owners should be financially responsible for a crime committed with a weapon purchased at their store.

Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel/AP

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In a potentially precedent setting case, two seriously wounded police officers have brought suit against a gun shop that they say has sold hundreds of weapons used in crimes.

Officers Bryan Norberg and Graham Kunisch want the store that sold a gun that eventually was used to inflict harm on them to be held liable.

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The two officers were shot during the summer of 2009 by Julius Burton after they stopped him for riding his bike on the sidewalk. The gun that Mr. Burton used for the crime was purchased by a straw buyer – a person who buys a gun for another who can't legally purchase one. Burton, who pleaded guilty and is serving an 80-year sentence for the shooting, was too young to purchase a gun at the time.

The case hinges on whether the gun shop owners should be held financially responsible for a crime committed with a firearm bought at their store. If jurors find the gun seller liable, it could set a controversial precedent. Gun shops usually cannot be held liable for crimes committed by their customers, under a law passed by Congress during the administration of President George W. Bush.

A lawyer for the police officers said Monday that the gun shop employees should have suspected that the transaction was illegal. Attorneys defending the owner and operators of Badger Guns and its predecessor, Badger Outdoors have denied wrongdoing and said their clients and the clerk who sold the gun were deceived by the straw buyer.

The officers' lawyer, Patrick Dunphy, told jurors that improperly marked forms and the behavior of the buyer, Jacob Collins, were obvious red flags that should have prompted the purveyor to cancel the sale.

Local authorities have said more than 500 firearms recovered from crime scenes had been traced back to Badger Guns and Badger Outdoors, calling it the "No. 1 crime gun dealer in America."

Last week, while speaking after the tragic mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would push to get rid of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) that prevents gun manufacturers and dealers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.