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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sins of the Gun-Shop Owner’s Son Don’t Follow

ST. LOUIS (CN) - Regulators should not have declined to license a gun seller just because the owner's son, a convicted felon, handled guns in the store, the Eighth Circuit ruled.

The case involves a shop in North Platte, Neb., called Jim's Hobbies.

James Harris Sr. operated the store, which had a federal license to sell guns, with his wife, Lois, and sons, James Harris Jr. and Brian Harris.

Though Brian was convicted of a felony in 1992, he continued working in the store as a gunsmith. That position naturally required Brian to handle guns, prompting a 2011 investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Brian's father in turn pleaded guilty to lying to an ATF agent about Brian possessing guns at the store. He had to surrender his federal gun-selling license as part of the plea, so Lois and James Harris Jr. incorporated themselves to continue operating Jim's Hobbies without James Sr. or Brian's involvement.

The only shareholders of the newly incorporated Harris News Agency are its president, Lois, vice-president, James Jr.

After an informal hearing, the ATF denied Harris News a gun-selling license, finding that the business had willfully allowed a felon to possess a firearm, and that James Jr. and Lois were "punishable as a principal" for Brian's illegal firearm possession.

Harris News filed suit, but a federal judge sided with the ATF at summary judgment, concluding that James Jr. allowed Brian to possess the store's firearms and was plainly indifferent to the unlawfulness of the situation.

The Eighth Circuit reversed on Dec. 22, however, saying the ATF failed to demonstrate how the officers of Harris News did anything to further Brian's unlawful firearms possession.

"The crux of the ATF's decision was that Lois and James Jr. violated 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) by 'allowing' Brian to possess guns at work," Chief Judge William Jay Riley wrote for a three-person panel. "Yet allowing someone to commit a crime - in the sense of simply not stopping it - is not the same as committing it. To the contrary, liability as a principal for aiding and abetting requires 'some conduct of an affirmative nature.'"

The ATF failed to prove anything affirmative about Lois and James Jr.'s conduct, according to the ruling.

"Nothing in the record suggests Lois or James Jr. gave Brian guns, told customers to give him guns, directed him to work with guns, or did anything else to further his possession of guns," the five-page decision states.

Finding that the ATF had no authority to deny the Harris News license application, the federal appeals court reversed and remanded the case for summary judgment in Harris News' favor.

Judges C. Arlen Beam and Jane Kelly concurred.

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