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Gun Foes Might Buy Arms Firm

Legal team for boy shot by a handgun may bid for the bankrupt O.C. company and close it.

June 17, 2004|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

The fate of one of the nation's most controversial gun makers may be decided this week in a federal bankruptcy court in Florida, where the assets of Costa Mesa-based Bryco Arms are scheduled to be auctioned.

The only bid so far is from Bryco's former plant manager, who intends to revive the dormant business. He has offered $150,000 for what's left of the company -- one of the last in a group of Southern California firms that once stamped out millions of inexpensive guns known as Saturday night specials.

But a last-minute bid may come from an unlikely source: the legal team representing Brandon Maxfield, a Mendocino County teenager who was left a quadriplegic after being accidentally shot with a Bryco pistol a decade ago.

"Bryco is either going to reopen with a new sign, or it's going to be purchased by a white knight who will sell off all of its assets and shut them down for good," said Richard Ruggieri, a San Rafael lawyer who gave up his law practice three years ago to take up Maxfield's case exclusively.

Ruggieri, who has approached antigun groups and philanthropists with the prospect of buying Bryco Arms, won't say how much money has been raised through an Internet campaign called Brandon's Arms.

The effort -- and today's scheduled sale of Bryco in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Jacksonville, Fla. -- are part of a decadelong legal fight that parallels the slow demise of once-notorious Ring of Fire arms companies.

"Yes, there was a boy hurt and it's a sorry situation and the process is working its way through ... the courts," said Ned Nashban, an attorney for Bryco founder Bruce Jennings. But "Ruggieri is running amok.... He's looking to make a name for himself in the antigun industry."

Maxfield was 7 in 1994 when he was shot by a baby sitter who was trying to unload the .38-caliber weapon. Because of the gun's design, the sitter had to turn off the safety to do so.

An Alameda County jury last year awarded Maxfield nearly $51 million in compensatory damages -- a settlement in which numerous parties, including the baby sitter and Maxfield's parents, were held liable.

Bryco, Jennings and his Nevada-based distribution company were ordered to pay more than $24 million of that judgment -- the largest award in a product liability case involving a gun manufacturer, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The companies, Jennings and several individuals and trusts associated with him filed for bankruptcy protection. The move not only forestalled payment to Maxfield, but shielded the group from potential judgments in more than 20 pending lawsuits.

Bryco stopped making guns this year, according to court documents filed in the bankruptcy case, and most of its staff has been laid off.

Maxfield collected more than $8 million from some defendants. But by filing for bankruptcy protection, Jennings, of Daytona Beach, Fla., and his companies have "successfully gotten out of all these pending cases and all future cases that might arise from any guns sold before," said Elizabeth Haile, a Brady Center attorney familiar with Maxfield's suit. "Maxfield is just another creditor. He stands in line."

For Jennings, bankruptcy was always part of the business plan for his companies.

"They can file for bankruptcy, dissolve, go away until the litigation passes by, then reform and build guns to the new standard -- if there is a new standard," Jennings told BusinessWeek magazine in 1999.

Jennings' father, George, a machinist, founded what critics call the "junk gun" business in 1970, two years after a federal law banned the importation of handguns that didn't meet safety standards. George Jennings' Raven Arms sold small-caliber pistols for as little as $25 and led to a half-dozen other makers of inexpensive guns around Los Angeles that were owned by Bruce Jennings' relatives or associates.

"It became the family business," said Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis who called the companies the Ring of Fire when he studied the propensity for their guns to be used in crimes.

At their peak in the early 1990s, the companies made more than one-quarter of all pistols manufactured in the United States. In 1994, the year Maxfield was shot, Bryco made 227,924 pistols, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

He cited a host of reasons for the group's demise: pressure from lawsuits, a decrease in crime over the last decade and a dramatic drop in handgun sales and production in recent years -- especially for weapons priced at less than $200.

Wintemute said Bruce Jennings called him a few years ago to ask if he wanted to a put together a group to buy Bryco and shut it down.

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