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— The manufacturer of a rifle that was used to kill two people during the Westside Middle School shootings is not accountable for the deaths, a judge ruled.

Because the two shooters had stolen the weapon from a locked gun cabinet, Sporting Goods Properties Inc. is removed from any liability, Poinsett County Circuit Judge David Burnett ruled Monday.

The company was dismissed from a lawsuit filed on behalf of the victims' families.

"I found there were intervening factors," Burnett said Tuesday of his ruling from the bench. There is no written decision. One of those intervening factors was the break-in, he said.

The decision doesn't hurt the plaintiffs' case because the lawsuit was never a quest for money, said attorney Bobby McDaniel, who filed the suit.

Instead, he says, the goal has been to make gun manufacturers more responsible by forcing them to add safety devices to their products.

"We're pleased with the fact that this lawsuit has brought to the national attention the existence of trigger locks," McDaniel said.

Burnett also dismissed as a defendant the man whose guns were stolen and later used by Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson to attack students and teachers at the school near Jonesboro on March 28, 1998.

Only the boys' parents are still named in the suit, which is scheduled to be heard in Craighead County Circuit Court in September.

But with the gun maker no longer a part of the lawsuit, there's little chance the case will go to trial, said Randel Miller, a Jonesboro attorney representing Gretchen Woodard, Mitchell Johnson's mother.

"As long as the gun company was in the case, there would be a trial," Miller said. "I see this as a positive step for us. Now that they're out of the picture, I hope to see some resolution."

The victims' families have said the gun company should be liable for two shooting deaths at the Westside school because it failed to provide a protective locking device when it sold the weapon to Doug Golden, Andrew's grandfather.

Four students and a teacher were killed when the two boys stole the guns from Doug Golden's home and later opened fire at Westside Middle School. Ten other people were injured in the shooting.

Mitchell used a Remington 742 to kill teacher Shannon Wright and student Stephanie Johnson, according to police. "Trigger locks would have prevented this," McDaniel said of Sporting Goods Properties' firearm.

The lawsuit was filed Aug. 11, 1998, one day before the two boys were found guilty of five counts of capital murder in a juvenile court in Jonesboro. The two are being held in a juvenile jail in Alexander until they turn 21.

The suit named Sporting Goods Properties, which was formerly known as Remington Arms Co., along with the parents of the two boys and Doug Golden. It originally named Universal Firearms, the manufacturer of a rifle Andrew used. McDaniel dropped the company because Universal Arms is bankrupt and has shut down operations.

Burnett's ruling was applauded by gun-rights advocates, who contend that the suit wasn't about safety.

"People are only suing gun manufacturers for the purpose of putting them out of business," said John Wallis, president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Rifle Association. "[McDaniel] has nothing now."

But the preponderance of such lawsuits are exerting change within the gun industry, said Andrew McClurg, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock law professor. Such legal challenges are forcing smaller manufacturers, or "junk gun makers," to file bankruptcy, he said.

Recently, Smith & Wesson announced it would install trigger locks on all its weapons. It was the first major manufacturer to do so.

"This is changing things, and it should," said McClurg, who briefly assisted McDaniel with his lawsuit. "My mouthwash has a safety cap on it. Guns are the only things that are not regulated."

Still, Burnett's ruling won't set any far-reaching legal precedent, McClurg said. Numerous gun cases are ongoing across the country, and they all have different individual merits, he said.

"The traditional viewpoint is that gun manufacturers are taking a no-control approach with their product," he said. "But in reality, it's changing. There's new technology developing that proves manufacturers can feasibly make their guns safer."

Wallis has criticized the use of trigger locks in the past, saying the locked weapons can still be fired. Lawsuits like McDaniel's are frivolous, he added.

"This suit is parallel with trying to sue a car company for making a fast car," Wallis said. "You know that the cars can go fast when you buy them. It's not the responsibility of the car maker to make cars that go only 20 miles per hour."

The same principal applied to Doug Golden, who locked his weapons in a gun cabinet, Wallis said, adding that he did what he was supposed to do.

Doug Golden said he was relieved after hearing Burnett's decision. Two years of stress after the shooting have taken its toll, he said. He suffered a heart attack earlier this year and is a candidate for bypass surgery.

"I'm glad this is over," he said. "It's been rough."

Golden kept 48 guns locked in a gun cabinet at his home when the shootings occurred. A thick steel cable ran through the triggers of each weapon and was locked on one end of the cabinet. He kept a key to the weapons attached to the cabinet. Andrew knew where to find it.

The families' lawsuit claimed that Golden should have secured his weapons better. Trigger locks were available in 1975 when Golden bought the weapon, McDaniel said.

Doug Golden declined to discuss the case, on the advice of his attorney.

Left as defendants in the lawsuit are the boys' parents, Pat and Dennis Golden and Gretchen Woodard and Scott Johnson.

McDaniel said he is trying to reach a settlement with the Goldens' home owners insurance company. The Goldens were unable to be reached for comment. Woodard was in Alexander visiting her son Tuesday and was not available .

The lawsuit also seeks to prevent the killers or their families from benefiting financially from the shooting through book sales, articles or movie deals.

"Gretchen has already agreed to that," Miller said. "I don't see this going to court."

Copyright © 2007, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.

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