Court: JCC Parents Can Sue Gunmakers

Three families, whose children were shot by a white supremacist in an attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC), can pursue their lawsuit against the makers of the weapons used in the shooting spree.

The May 28 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco was greeted with relief by the three families and by the mother of postal carrier Joseph S. Ileto, who was slain by the same gunman in a separate attack.

The suit grew out of the Aug. 10, 1999 attack by Buford O. Furrow Jr., a self-avowed anti-Semite and white supremacist, on the Jewish center in Granada Hills, which left three children, one teenager and one adult wounded.

"I am so elated that we are finally moving forward," Donna Finkelstein told The Journal. Her daughter Mindy, then a 16-year-old counselor at the JCC, suffered two gunshot wounds to her leg.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Alan Stepakoff and Loren Lieb, whose then 6-year-old son, Joshua Stepakoff, was also shot in the leg.

Also participating in the suit, which seeks unspecified damages, are Eleanor and Charles Kadish, whose son Benjamin, then 5, was the most seriously injured, with gunshot wounds to his stomach and legs.

Eleanor Kadish said that the legal decision was "something of a victory" and she was optimist that the gunmakers would ultimately be held accountable.

She described her family life as "pretty much back to normal, but the trauma always comes back to you."

Among the large cache of weapons found in Furrow’s car were an Austrian-made Glock 9-millimeter handgun and a 9-millimeter rifle, made by North China Industries. Both manufacturers are named in the suit.

Furrow, who is now serving five life terms in prison, without possibility of parole, was a longtime member of the Aryan Nations. The Idaho-based group proclaims that all Jews are descendants of Satan.

When he turned himself in to the FBI in Las Vegas, Furrow told agents that he had shot up the Jewish center the day before as "a wake-up call to Americans to kill Jews."

He added that he had shot and killed Ileto because he was non-white and worked for the federal government.

Before the shooting rampage, Furrow had checked out the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Skirball Cultural Center and University of Judaism, but had found security too tight. He described his choice of the NVJCC as "a target of opportunity."

In filing the original suit almost four years ago, attorney Joshua Horwitz of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence said that Furrow, a convicted felon with a history of mental instability, should not have been allowed to build an arsenal of assault-style weapons.

"It’s not enough to let guns go out your factory door and say, ‘Sorry, we don’t know where they’re headed,’" Horwitz said.

Commenting on the current court ruling, Horwitz said that "When the actions of gunmakers and distributors put public safety at risk, they must be held accountable."

Friday’s ruling by the full 26-member appeals court upheld the same ruling by an earlier three-judge panel, which had been appealed by the Glock company.

However, eight of the 26 judges dissented, warning that the ruling could threaten many non-gun manufacturers and seriously damage the state’s economy.

Attorneys for the gunmakers said they had not yet decided whether to request a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

One outgrowth of the JCC attack has been the Million Mom March, a national gun control initiative, with much of the initial impetus coming from Jewish Valley women, including Finkelstein and Lieb.

Finkelstein, and her husband David, were active participants in the 2004 march, held last month in Washington, D.C.