by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

And you thought Solomon had it tough. Dividing a baby might seem simple compared to the task attempted by a Florida jury last week.

The jury tried to determine blame in the death of a teacher gunned down by a 13-year-old student. You remember this case. Nathaniel Brazill, the student, was sent home on the last day of school for tossing water balloons. He came back with a gun from a neighbor’s house. He asked his teacher, Barry Grunow, if he could speak to a girl in the class. Grunow said no, not in the hallway, but he invited Brazill into the classroom.

Brazill pulled out the gun, pointed it and fired. Grunow died.

Now, months after the conviction — Brazill, despite his age, was found guilty as an adult and sentenced to 28 years in prison — another jury was asked to determine how much blame the gun distributor held.

Grunow’s widow felt the distributor, Valor Corp. (there’s a name with a little too much irony), was deeply at fault for failing to put any kind of lock on the Saturday night special used to kill Grunow. Attorneys argued that Valor ignored thousands of notices from the government that its product, which is cheap and easily concealed, was used in crimes.

The jury agreed.

But not wholeheartedly.

The blame game

Instead, the jury did an odd thing. It broke down blame by percentages: The gun distributor was 5 percent responsible for Grunow’s death.

It said the school board was 45 percent responsible, for allowing Brazill back into school with a gun.

And it said 50 percent of the blame lay with Brazill’s neighbor and family friend, Elmore McCray, who owned the .25-caliber handgun and had stored it in a drawer from which Brazill took it.

It then assigned monetary value to the blame. It said the family should be paid $24 million total, broken down proportionately, which means the family friend should pay $12 million, the school board should pay $10.8 million, and Valor, the gun distributor, should pay $1.2 million. (By the way, the store that sold the gun was already sued. And the company that made the gun was out of business.)

Now. The first thing that stands out here is that Grunow’s attorneys weren’t suing the family friend or the school board. Just the gun distributor. They had hoped to make this a landmark case against the weapons business, much the way the first big tobacco settlement was a landmark case in smokers’ lawsuits.

But the jury, in devising its own blame ratio, showed how complicated a question of violence really is. Guns, unlike cigarettes, are not innately addictive. You can buy them and never use them.

On the other hand, cigarettes — second-hand smoke aside for the moment — are not designed to kill other people. Guns are.

The NRA and others

How did the jury determine that 5 percent was appropriate? Why is the school board so liable? Did it sanction gun use on campus, or was it just as surprised as everyone else? And where is Brazill’s culpability in this? You mean not 1 percent can be attributed the shooter?

While we’re at it, how about the kid’s parents? Aren’t they responsible for their failure to teach their son to handle problems without bullets? Isn’t that a 5-percenter? Maybe 10?

What about violent TV programs, video games and movies? Don’t they create a culture in which guns are commonplace? Shouldn’t they be lopped in here? Five percent? Seven and a half?

And how about the National Rifle Association? It treats every possible restriction on gun makers — even the most sensible ones — as if jackbooted thugs are stealing the stripes off the flag. Does the NRA bear culpability? As long as we’re splitting the baby?

Where do you stop? The schools? The churches? The neighborhood? The bullet maker?

In the end, you have just one weapon, one shooter and one corpse. But as this jury found out, when it comes to gun violence in America, the math is never that simple.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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