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Court says gun owner not negligent in N.H. shooting

Relatives of victims listened during a sentencing hearing for a man who shot three people to death with a stolen gun.

Jim Cole/associated Press/file 2007

Relatives of victims listened during a sentencing hearing for a man who shot three people to death with a stolen gun.

A man who owned a gun used by his grandson in the fatal shootings of three people during a botched robbery at a New Hampshire Army surplus store is not liable in the killings, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston upheld a ruling by a federal judge in New Hampshire who found that Lawrence Secord was not negligent in the storage of a handgun stolen by his grandson, Michael Woodbury, and used in the 2007 robbery at the Army Barracks store, a military surplus and outdoor gear store in Conway, N.H.

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Gail Jones, the mother of one of the victims, sued Secord, alleging that he improperly stored the gun used in the shootings.

Jones’s son — Gary, 23, of Halifax — was killed, along with his friend — William Jones, 25, of ­Walpole — when the two men stopped to shop at the store on the way home from a camping trip on July 2, 2007. The store manager — James Walker, 34, of Denmark, Maine — was also killed.

Jones asserted in her lawsuit that Secord, of Scarborough, Maine, should have done more to secure his gun. Secord kept the .22-caliber gun in a locked cabin at a family hunting camp in Wentworth ­Location, N.H.

Jones said Secord should have taken extra precautions after he learned that his grandson had been released from prison two months before the shootings. The court, like the lower court, ruled that Jones had not shown that Secord was liable.

The appeals court said the New Hampshire Supreme Court has recognized that people generally cannot be held liable for the criminal acts of third parties, except under narrow exceptions.

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‘‘The record here, even when construed in the light most flattering to the plaintiff, does not show ­either a particularized risk of harm or a degree of foreseeability sufficient to animate this exception,’’ Judge Bruce Selya wrote for a three-judge panel of the court that heard the case.

Woodbury, of Windham, Maine, pleaded guilty and is serving life in prison.

In the weeks before the shootings, Woodbury went on a multistate crime spree that included robbing a bank in Florence, S.C.; holding up a clothing store in Chattanooga, Tenn.; and breaking into a home in St. Simons Island, Ga., and then setting it on fire.

Authorities said he stole the gun from his grandfather’s hunting camp, which he had visited while growing up.

Secord’s lawyer, Anthony Campo, said the door to his cabin was locked, and the gun was unloaded and hidden under a hot water heater platform. He said Secord had seen his grandson only once, briefly, in the 12 years before the shootings. The lower court judge found that Woodbury broke a window and entered the camp without Secord’s permission.

‘‘Nobody in Mr. Secord’s shoes could have ever predicted that this chain of events would occur,’’ Campo said Monday.

‘‘He certainly is pleased [with the ruling], but nobody is jumping up and down for joy. . . . We feel terrible for the families who lost their loves ones. It’s such a senseless crime.’’

Jones said she did not bring the lawsuit to retaliate, but instead in hope of persuading gun owners to be more careful about securing their guns.

‘‘Firearms are very dangerous when they’re in the wrong hands,’’ she said. ‘‘I’m very proud of what I tried to accomplish. It wasn’t just for my son, but for everyone’s children. I wouldn’t want it to happen to anybody, losing a child.’’

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