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Gun Dealer Torn By Ex-Wife’s Lawsuit in Son’s Suicide Death

September 20, 1987

MOLINE, Ill. (AP) _ Guy and Kathy Johnson couldn’t get along when they were married and now, 14 years after their bitter divorce, they are heading to court again, this time over their son’s suicide.

Johnson, a Moline gun dealer, is facing a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by his ex-wife, now Kathy Morris, who blames him for 16-year-old Michael’s gunshot suicide last October.

Illinois law requires all gun owners to obtain permits. In the case of anyone under 21, a parent or legal guardian must sign and accept responsibility for any damage done by the minor with the weapon.

Mrs. Morris maintains that since Johnson gave up legal rights to Michael after the couple divorced, it was wrong for him to sign a gun permit for the boy. But in signing, she said, he assumed all liability and is responsible for Michael’s death.

″There’s no basis for this lawsuit,″ said Johnson, 37. ″The sad thing is Michael’s dead and all this haranguing will not bring Michael back.″

Mrs. Morris’ suit, filed Aug. 17 in Rock Island Circuit Court, seeks more than $8,000 to cover funeral costs, ambulance expenses and damage to her home from the gunshot that killed her son.

In addition, her attorney, Glenn Ruud, said he expects to ask a jury for $150,000 to $300,000 in damages.

Ruud said he believes the lawsuit is unprecedented in Illinois. He said his research found no appellate case in Illinois involving a wrongful death lawsuit based on this aspect of the gun-permit law. He said there would be no way of determining if similar lawsuits were filed at the circuit court level.

He called the case ″a unique factual circumstance.″

″I didn’t start this for the money,″ Mrs. Morris said. ″Money won’t replace my son.″

But, she said, she ″just couldn’t handle all the bills and funeral expenses.″

″(Johnson) signed for the ID card for my son against my wishes. I refused to sign. That makes him responsible,″ she said.

Johnson and his wife were divorced three years after Michael was born. Johnson gave up custody of his son and severed all parental rights and claims when Kathy remarried. Her new husband, William Kent, wanted to adopt the boy.

Besides putting distance between himself and his ex-wife, Johnson said he acted so that Michael would have a normal home life with his adoptive father.

Kathy’s marriage to Kent did not last, and they divorced. In 1984, Johnson said, his ex-wife asked him to spend some time with his son.

Michael, 13 at the time, had been caught shoplifting and was having problems at school, his father said. Johnson entered the picture and the two became friends, sharing a mutual interest in guns.

The boy started spending much of his spare time at Johnson’s store, Moline Munitions, which offers weapons, hunting gear and clothing.

Mrs. Morris said Johnson helped Michael obtain a gun permit and a variety of weapons, which he kept in his bedroom.

As they grew closer, Johnson and his son went hunting and scuba diving together. Michael started developing into an excellent target shooter, entering national shooting contests, Johnson said.

In the meantime, Kathy remarried, but Johnson said Michael did not get along well with his new stepfather, Jack Morris. He had trouble at school and with his girlfriend. And he was despondent over the death of a close family friend, according to a coroner’s report.

On Oct. 4, 1986, Michael told a friend by telephone that he was going to kill himself. Morris overheard the conversation and immediately went to Michael’s bedroom and removed several weapons, the coroner’s report said.

But the boy grabbed a loaded rifle and killed himself.

Johnson said he had no regrets over his involvement with firearms.

″Suicide is a frame of mind,′ he said. ″All I know is that we had a lot of fun together and we were looking forward to a lot more. That’s why I feel bad. That’s the pain.″

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