MADISON — A firearms website that enabled a Wisconsin man to illegally purchase the pistol he used to shoot seven people at a suburban Milwaukee spa six years ago can't be sued over the incident, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The court ruled 5-1 that federal law protects website operators from liability arising from their sites' design and functions. The ruling reverses a state appellate court finding that the federal Communications Decency Act grants website operators immunity only from lawsuits challenging site content provided by others and expands the act's breadth in Wisconsin.
Zina Haughton and Radcliffe Haughton
Radcliffe Haughton's wife, Zina Daniel Haughton, had taken out a restraining order against him that prohibited him from possessing a firearm. But he bought a semiautomatic pistol and ammunition from a person he met through Armslist.com, according to court documents.
The site functions as an electronic classifieds page, with buyers and sellers posting want and for-sale ads for weapons and ammunition. According to court documents, Haughton used an Armslist.com function that allowed him to bypass ads from licensed dealers, enabling him to avoid a background check. Licensed firearms dealers must conduct such checks prior to purchase; private sellers aren't required to perform them.
He met the seller in October 2012 and bought the pistol and ammunition. The next day he opened fire at Azana Salon & Spa in Brookfield, where his wife worked. He killed her, two of her co-workers and wounded four others before he took his own life.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence sued in 2015 on behalf of Haughton's wife's daughter, Yasmeen Daniel, alleging the website's operator, Armslist LLC, was liable for the incident. Daniel argued that the site's setup encourages illegal firearm sales because it allows buyers to avoid background checks and waiting periods, provides no guidance on laws governing firearm sales and allows users to remain anonymous.
Armslist attorneys countered that the Communications Decency Act renders website operators immune from liability stemming from their sites' design and functions.
The 4th District Court of Appeals last year rejected that argument and allowed the case to continue. The court said that the act ensures only that operators aren't liable for publishing content provided by someone else. That court refused to expand the act's immunity to site design and functions.
The Computer and Communications Industry Association filed amicus briefs with the state Supreme Court arguing that act provides immunity for website operators' "traditional editorial functions" and the appeals court's ruling resulted in the act meaning something different in Wisconsin than the rest of the country.
Several former members of Congress who supported the act also filed briefs with the high court, including former U.S. Reps. Jim Moran and Luis Gutierrez. They argued the act doesn't protect website operators from their own actions. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence as well as a host of other domestic violence groups also filed a brief urging the justices to adopt the appellate court findings.
"Armslist's promotion of illicit arms transactions involving known abusers must not be immunized under the CDA simply because Armslist does business on the Internet instead of in a dark alley behind the courthouse," the groups said.
Attorneys for Daniel didn't immediately return voice mail messages Tuesday morning.