Two police officers are suing the owner of a Princeton gun store for selling a gun through a third party to a man who shot at them at New Hope City Hall. Both officers were injured. It's believed to be the first lawsuit of its kind in Minnesota.
Lawyers for the officers contend the ultimate buyer, Ray Kmetz, was known to the gun dealer, who could have run a background check.
On January 26 of 2015, Police Officer Joshua Eernisse was at the suburban Minneapolis city hall celebrating his first anniversary on the force. More than a dozen of his fellow officers were there with their families. Some had just been sworn in at the evening's council meeting.
Eernisse stepped outside the chambers as council members continued with their agenda. Cameras from the local cable access channel were rolling.
Outside the chamber, Kmetz fired his shotgun into the group of officers. More than 50 pellets struck Eernisse as he stood next to his wife. Surgeons were unable to remove all of the shot; 35 pellets remain embedded in his shoulder.
Officer Beau Schoenhard was also at New Hope city hall that evening. He described what happened at a news conference at his lawyer's office in Minneapolis.
"I saw Ray and I went. I didn't think. I didn't have to think. And I went after him and the gun," Schoenhard said.
As he struggled with Kmetz, a bullet from another officer's gun struck Schoenhard in the wrist, shattering his bones. It took four surgeries and 75 physical therapy sessions to repair the damage.
Police shot and killed Kmetz.
Schoenhard grew up in South Dakota. He said he learned to hunt as a child and strongly supports the Second Amendment, but said Kmetz should never have been allowed to buy that shotgun.
Attorney Chris Messerly with the Robins Kaplan firm is representing the officers pro bono along with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Kmetz was involuntarily committed to the Minnesota Security Hospital in 2009 after he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer. That commitment, Messerly said, made Kmetz ineligible to own a firearm.
Messerly said Kmetz bought three guns online and sent another man to pick them up at the Full Metal Gun Shop in Princeton. Messerly added that Kmetz's name was on the order, and store owner Troy Buchholz should have been able to determine easily that Kmetz was buying the guns illegally.
"They choose not to check Kmetz's background for the transfer of Kmetz's gun. Instead, he chooses to give all three weapons, including the semiautomatic shotgun to Kmetz's straw man buyer," Messerly continued.
Buchholz did not return a call seeking comment.
A 2005 federal law generally prohibits negligence suits against gun manufacturers and dealers. But Jonathan Lowy, an attorney with the Brady Center, said that doesn't apply in this case.
A similar suit was successful in Wisconsin. In 2015 a jury in Milwaukee ordered a gun store to pay $6 million to two police officers injured by a 15-year-old shooter who illegally obtained a gun through a straw purchase. The officers later settled for $1 million.
Lowy said the suit filed Tuesday is the first straw-purchaser lawsuit against a gun store in Minnesota.
"They're in it for political reasons," Andrew Rothman from the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance said of the Brady campaign involvement in the suit.
"It's pretty clear that the Brady campaign isn't looking out for the individual rights and the welfare of those people who got shot," he added.
The plaintiffs both say suffering life-altering injuries has not changed their stance on gun rights; they say they just want to ensure that people in the gun business follow the laws already on the books.
Both policemen are back at work. Eernisse is still with the New Hope department. Schoenhard, who was Minnesota officer of the year in 2016, now serves in Edina.
MPR News reporter Brandt Williams contributed to this story.
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