CHICAGO — Attorneys for the city filed a lawsuit Monday against a Northwest Indiana gun shop alleging it has flouted federal gun laws for more than a decade, flooding the city with guns that are resold to those who cannot legally own them.
The lawsuit against Westforth Sports Inc. in Calumet Township seeks a court order placing the gun shop under supervision for five years and requiring it to preserve records, train employees, assist in the recovery of illegally sold guns and post bonds that must be forfeited in the event of future violations.
Chicago also is seeking damages to address the "nuisance" it alleges Westforth has created and for compensation for the city's expenses in addressing gun violence.
More than 850 guns recovered after crimes in Chicago from 2009 to 2016 were traced back to Westforth, which consistently ranks as the "highest out-of-state supplier of crime guns in the city," Chicago's lawsuit says.
Additionally, a review of illegal gun purchase prosecutions by the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Indiana from December 2014 to April 2021 showed about 44% of cases involved sales at Westforth, the suit states.
"These court documents show that Westforth is known to have sold at least 180 guns to at least 40 people later charged with federal crimes in connection with these purchases," the suit states.
"These eye-popping numbers are not the result of bad luck or coincidence or location. They are the natural and predictable outcome of a business model that ignores the federal laws and regulations that are intended to keep the public safe."
A representative from Westforth Sports did not return a message from The Times seeking comment on the lawsuit.
ATF repeatedly cited shop, suit states
The civil lawsuit is the first to be filed by Chicago against an alleged source of illegal guns in more than two decades, the city said. It was filed on behalf of the city by Everytown Law, the litigation arm of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, the Chicago Department of Law and the law firm Mayer Brown LLP.
Chicago officials said in a news release their complaint "cites years of previously unseen audit reports by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showing repeat violations, warnings and two recommendations for revocation of Westforth Sports Inc.'s license to sell guns."
Westforth was on notice that illegal firearms were being trafficked from its store because it was sued in 1999 by the city of Gary, the suit states. The gun shop settled with Gary on confidential terms in 2007.
The ATF has cited Westforth at least 39 separate times for violating federal laws and regulations since Earl Westforth has been president of the business, the lawsuit alleges.
"In 2017, Earl Westforth even asked the ATF 'whether the business's inspection history would "erase'" if his son took over the business," according to the lawsuit.
Earl Westforth has been trained on his legal obligations on at least nine separate occasions and signed an acknowledgement each time, the suit states.
Chicago's population totals nearly 3 million, but the toll of gun violence is "disproportionately concentrated in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods and continues to disproportionately impact the city's African-American population," the suit says.
The neighborhoods of Austin, Englewood, West Englewood, New City and Greater Grand Crossing were home to about 8% of the city's population in 2016, but accounted for nearly half of the city's overall homicide increase that year.
That same year, African-Americans made up one-third of the city's population but comprised about 80% of the city's homicide victims.
From 2016 to 2019, the city spent about $442 million on policing and emergency medical services related to gun violence, the suit states.
In 2020, the city allocated $10.4 million to gun violence prevention programs, including victim support services, street outreach programs, trauma-informed training, community safe-space programming, a youth program offering therapy services, case management, and educational and employment opportunities.
City: Federal gun laws are clear
The lawsuit states federal law is clear that a gun dealer must stop a transaction if it suspects a buyer is a straw purchaser or unlicensed gun dealer, but Westforth sold firearms to people it "knew, or deliberately avoided knowing, were engaged in illegal firearms trafficking and straw purchasing."
Indicators of illegal gun sales include high volume and multiple-sale transactions of duplicate or near-duplicate firearms, the city's attorneys wrote.
Chicago pointed to case in Hammond federal court against Darryl Ivery Jr., who is accused of buying 19 guns from Westforth during a seven-month period in 2020.
Ivery alleged purchased 10 guns in multiple-sale transactions and bought nine more "at intervals designed to avoid federal reporting requirements," the lawsuit states.
Chicago police have recovered seven guns Ivery purchased at Westforth and other Northwest Indiana firearms dealers, including one found at the scene of a shooting just 22 days after its purchase, the suit alleges.
Ivery pleaded not guilty to a charge of making false statements in the acquisition of a firearms. He's currently scheduled to stand trial May 10, U.S. District Court records show.
Cherisse L. Mitchell was accused of buying three identical Taurus-brand handguns and two identical Smith & Wesson handguns in spring 2020. One of the guns was recovered by Chicago police about a month after Mitchell purchased it at Westforth, the lawsuit alleges.
Mitchell pleaded guilty in December to one count of making false statements in acquisition of a firearm, federal court records show.
Chicago police recovered two guns purchased at Westforth in May 2018 by Levar Reynolds in the bedroom of a man who was under indictment for multiple felonies, the lawsuit states. One of the guns allegedly had been fitted with a laser sight.
Reynolds — who was accused of buying a total of five guns, including two duplicate and near-duplicate pairs — pleaded guilty in February to making false statements in the acquisition of firearms and is scheduled to be sentenced June 17.
Other guns purchased by alleged straw buyers have been recovered in Gary, Hammond, East Chicago and Merrillville, according to the lawsuit.
Chicago alleges Westforth has sold hundreds, if not thousands, of guns that later were illegally sold in the city, many of which remain in circulation.
The unrecovered guns are "the scary part," because law enforcement won't find them until they're used in a crime, the suit states.