Westforth Sports Credit: Westforth Sports/Facebook

CHICAGO — The city of Chicago has filed a lawsuit against a Gary, Indiana, gun store it alleges has engaged in a pattern of illegal sales that has resulted in the flow of “hundreds, if not thousands,” of illegal firearms into the city. 

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Cook County Chancery Court, seeks a court order requiring Westforth Sports, Inc., of Gary, to cease practices contributing to gun trafficking as well as unspecified damages.

The suit alleges Westforth Sports, 10 miles from the city’s border, knowingly sells guns to traffickers and straw buyers who then transport the guns to Chicago, where they are resold to criminals. The lawsuit also claims that between 2009 and 2016, a study of gun crimes ranked Westforth Sports as the highest out-of-state supplier of guns used in crimes in the city, responsible for more than 850 gun crimes during that period.

Reached by phone Monday, Westforth Sports owner Earl Westforth said he was unaware of the lawsuit but said “we follow the law to the ‘T’ and go above and beyond.” He added that “we transfer guns to Illinois, yes, but all the background checks and paperwork is done in Illinois and out of our hands.”

Background checks for gun transfers are done by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and out of state sales are limited to “long guns,” according to a federal source.

The lawsuit was filed by Everytown Law, the litigation arm of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, along with the city’s Law Department and law firm Mayer Brown LLP. The 42-page complaint alleges Earl Westforth “has been trained on his legal obligations on at least nine separate occasions” by ATF officials and that Westforth signed an affirmation each time acknowledging receipt. 

“In addition to formal reviews of applicable law, ATF investigators have on several occasions provided additional guidance to Westforth concerning specific violations,” the suit alleges.

The suit also detailed examples of two straw buyers, one of whom is alleged to have purchased 19 handguns over a seven-month period in 2020 — including ten guns bought in multiple-state transactions and nine others bought at intervals designed to avoid federal reporting requirements. The other buyer the suit highlights allegedly bought six handguns from Westforth in the spring of 2020, including three identical Taurus handguns and a pair of identical Smith & Wesson handguns. The suit alleges that these duplicative multiple-sale transactions are “unmistakable warning signs of straw purchasing” that Westforth ignored.

This is not the first time Westforth Sports has been sued by the City. In 1998, Westforth was among the three dozen gun manufacturers, distributors and gun stores named in a $433 million lawsuit that was hailed as a cornerstone of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s attempt to crack down on gun violence in the city. That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2004. 

The difference in this case, according to Alla Lefkowitz, director of affirmative litigation for Everytown Law, is that “in this lawsuit we have alleged that Westforth Sports knowingly violated the law over and over again and that is something that the court said was missing from the previous lawsuit.”

Asked if the suit may expand to name additional defendants, Lefkowitz would only say “right now, the plan is to focus on Westforth Sports.”

But Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, the Illinois chapter of the NRA, said the lawsuit “isn’t playing fair.” 

“I don’t know how you know a straw buyer. If the person comes in and offers to purchase a firearm, they often don’t say ‘I am a straw buyer.’ So, if their background check comes back clear, they are sort of obligated to sell them the gun because if they don’t, then that can present all sorts of problems,” Pearson said.

The lawsuit comes the same day as the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear a case in its next term that challenges a New York gun control law related to carrying guns.

In a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday’s lawsuit is intended to stop the tide of gun violence and hold wrongdoers accountable.

“As Mayor, I’ve worked tirelessly to reduce violence to keep our streets safe. Time and time again, however, it has become even more clear that holding accountable all those who contribute to gun violence here, regardless of where they are located, is key to our ability to create a safer Chicago. This lawsuit is about addressing a major source of illegal guns recovered in our city, and it should send an unmistakable signal about our commitment to reducing gun violence and stopping gun trafficking.”

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