Under the Gun

Tales of anguish fill a Brooklyn courtroom as the kin of shooting victims battle the firearms industry

Despite her position as the lead plaintiff in this case, which is known as Hamiltonv. Accu-Tek, Hamilton harbors no ill will toward the attorneys who work for her opponents. "I don't see these guys as villains," she says, gesturing toward the 11 lawyers who represent the gun industry. "I see them as people doing their jobs."

In fact, Hamilton and Anne G. Kimball, the lawyer for Smith & Wesson and Colt, greet each other warmly each morning. Some days, they joke about the weather. About a recent newspaper story that featured Hamilton, Kimball told her twice: "It was a good article!"

Not all the plaintiffs like Kimball, however. Gail Fox averts her eyes when the attorney passes her in the corridor outside the courtroom. "I have a lot of animosity toward her [or] any woman involved on the other side," Fox whispers. "I know she must have some children, some grandchildren of her own. I only want for mine what she wants for hers."

Before the shooting: Stephen Fox was 15 when a friend shot him, leaving a bullet in his brain.
courtesy of Elisa Barnes
Before the shooting: Stephen Fox was 15 when a friend shot him, leaving a bullet in his brain.

Kimball, who has four children and four grandchildren, says she feels for all the plaintiffs. "They're very sympathetic stories," she says. "Whether we're lawyers or not, [and] no matter what side of the case we're on, as human beings, we all empathize. Violence is bad. Crime is bad. Crime with guns is bad. But that's very different from saying a legally manufactured and distributed product used by criminals is at fault."

On January 6, Kimball delivered the defendants' opening statement, telling the jury: "You can't accept any argument that shifts blame from the cold-blooded killers." Such a assertion made little sense to some plaintiffs. The shooters did not seem so different from the victims in several of their cases. In the court hallway after Kimball's opening statement, Veronica Trott said, "The people who killed our kids were kids." Gail Fox added: "I live half a block away from the kid who shot my son."

The only gunshot victim in this lawsuit who survived is Fox's son, Stephen. A tall, soft- spoken 19-year-old, Stephen has attended almost every day of the trial. He does not speak much, but the majority of people in the courtroom knew his story before he stepped onto the witness stand. Four years ago, a friend accidentally shot Stephen with a .25-caliber handgun. The bullet is still lodged in his brain.

Stephen told the jurors about his shooting when he testified on January 20. "Me and [my friend] were talking for a while and then I saw him raise his arm up with a black object, and the next thing I knew I woke up in my mother's arms," Stephen said. "I couldn't move at all— my arms or my legs."

The plaintiffs have asked for damages in this case, so Stephen testified about what the shooting had cost him— physically, mentally, and in terms of future earnings. To the untrained eye, Stephen looks perfectly normal, except that he walks with a limp. But for close to an hour, Stephen spoke about his battle to relearn everything, from how to walk and talk to how to button, zipper, and snap. Once a devoted basketball player, he can now do little more than shoot a few hoops while standing in one spot. He informed the jury that he is studying for his high school equivalency diploma and hopes to become a carpenter. But the expert who testified after Stephen told a different story.

Barnes whisked Stephen and his mother out of the courtroom as Morris Ehrenreich, a rehabilitation specialist, walked toward the witness stand. "I felt that it would not be valuable or good for him to listen to this," Ehrenreich explained. Then he delivered his devastating diagnosis.

The bullet that tore into Stephen's skull had robbed him of 37 I.Q. points, leaving him "mentally deficient," according to Ehrenreich. He said it is "extremely unlikely" that Stephen will regain the full use of his brain and will probably need to reside in a supervised setting for the rest of his life. As Ehrenreich detailed these limitations, Stephen himself lumbered back into the courtroom to retrieve his parka.

Ehrenreich stopped talking. Everyone stared. Gesturing toward Stephen, the specialist said, "I'm going to ask . . . " Barnes jumped up from her seat and ushered Stephen back out. Then the witness continued his bleak assessment of Stephen's future. "He's going to be limited to jobs where he has one or two tasks— jobs that are minimum-wage or a little better than that," Ehrenreich said. He rattled off possible careers: counter clerk, dispatcher, cashier.

While each of the plaintiffs in this case had testified, the lawyers for the gun industry had listened quietly and then declined to cross-examine. But with Ehrenreich on the stand— and Stephen still in the hallway— E. Gordon Haesloop, who represents a gun distributor, took off the kid gloves. The attorney suggested that maybe Stephen's skills had not declined as much as Ehrenreich said, because the teenager had not been such a stellar student in the first place.

"In fact, he had to repeat the eighth grade— and that was prior to his accident," Haesloop said.

Turning to Ehrenreich, the lawyer asked, "Would you consider Stephen to be a less-than-average motivated student?"

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