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Family of slain Chicago cop sues Mississippi gun shop

Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham IV photo.  | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham IV photo. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: May 28, 2013 7:47PM

A Chicago police officer’s family Wednesday sued the Mississippi pawnshop that sold a gun used to kill the police officer three years ago.

The suit was brought by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence on behalf of the family of Thomas E. Wortham IV, who was killed in May, 2010 when four men tried to rob him of his motorcycle front of his parents’ home in Chatham.

Filed in Federal Court in Mississippi, the suit is the latest of several legal actions brought by the Brady Center nationwide targeting gun sellers for negligence in the sale of weapons later used in murders.

“We’re sending a message to gun sellers around the country that if they choose to put profits over people, we’ll come after them and they’ll pay the price,” said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project.

The suit claims that Ed’s Pawnshop in Byhalia, Mississippi, had a pattern of negligently selling guns to “straw” buyers ­— people who buy weapons for others who cannot legally own them.

It alleges the shop negligently sold the Smith & Wesson .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun that killed Wortham to a “straw” purchaser who passed the gun onto a trafficker who sold it “into the criminal market in Chicago.”

The suit also charged that the pawn shop made no effort to determine if the buyer was an illegal straw purchaser, despite red flags such as the fact he bought multiple weapons and paid in cash.

“There were clear indicators in this case we allege that should have put the pawn shop on notice that this was a straw purchase,” Lowy said.

A woman answering the phone at the pawn shop refused comment and hung up.

Wortham’s father, retired Chicago Police Sgt. Thomas Wortham III, witnessed the shooting of his son and shot and killed one of the suspects.

Speaking at a downtown news conference called by the Brady Center, Wortham said his son “was shot and killed right outside my door by criminals who should have never gotten hold of lethal weapons.”

The Brady Center has participated in several similar suits and prior to 2005, won millions in settlements.

But since 2005, any suit against a gun dealer faces an uphill battle since a federal law was passed protecting gun makers and dealers from liability for weapons they sell.

However that law provides for exceptions in the case of negligence and appeals courts in gun-friendly states such as Alaska and Colorado have allowed such cases to continue.

The Wortham suit, which seeks an undetermined amount of damages, also names the straw purchaser, Michael Elliot, and the trafficker, Quawi Gates, as defendants. Elliot served six months for lying on a federal firearms form and Gates is serving 10 years on numerous federal weapons charges.

Three men were charged with murdering Wortham and are awaiting trial.

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