Attorney Richard Ruggieri gently removed the trigger lock from a Bryco Arms Model 38 handgun, a small exhibit sticker still affixed to its protective box.
It had been years since Ruggieri picked up the gun, which played a key role in a lawsuit that ended with the owner of the Costa Mesa, California, gun manufacturer declaring bankruptcy. Now, sitting at his kitchen table, Ruggieri wanted to demonstrate the pistol’s crucial design flaw.
To check that the gun is unloaded, you first must switch the safety to the “off” position, allowing the slide to be pulled back so the gun can be cleaned and handled.
“Uh-oh,” Ruggieri said as the handgun jammed.
The irony is not lost on Ruggieri, who chuckles before trying again. This time, he is able to pull the slide back all the way, exposing the unloaded chamber. But as he hands the gun over to me, the slide is loose, with the recoil spring visible under the barrel. It felt as though with the slightest movement, the gun would break into pieces.
The Model 38 featured prominently in a famous case, and Ruggieri plans to have it destroyed in the coming weeks, likely melted down the way some police departments clear out firearms from their evidence lockers.
Ruggieri recalled the last time he held this gun, standing in front of an Alameda County jury in 2003, representing Brandon Maxfield in Maxfield v. Bryco Arms et al. Brandon was accidentally shot at age 7 when his babysitter attempted to unload a Model 38 that Brandon’s father had purchased at a pawnshop. The incident left the boy paralyzed from the neck down.
In the weeks leading up to the trial, Ruggieri had practiced pulling the slide back, taking care that his fingers did not slip on the thin metal grip. He had purchased the gun to have it tested by experts.
The civil lawsuit claimed that the safety feature design built into the Bryco gun – introduced by the company to address a notorious jamming issue – was flawed. Had Brandon’s babysitter been able to keep the safety on while handling the gun, Ruggieri believes he never would have been shot.
Brandon’s story is the subject of a soon-to-be released book by Mike Harkins. Ruggieri, meanwhile, still is trying to collect the remainder of the $24 million awarded by a jury, which found Bryco partially liable for the accidental shooting.
The company’s owner, Bruce Jennings, moved to Florida and declared bankruptcy following the lawsuit. Jennings currently is serving 10 years in prison after federal agents found he had amassed thousands of child pornography images and videos that he made available for people to download.
Since Jennings declared bankruptcy, Ruggieri has been engaged in a yearslong legal battle to recover the money owed to Brandon Maxfield, now 27.
“We got as much as we could,” Ruggieri said. He would not be specific, only saying that “without going into confidential details, I can tell you that we have recovered several million dollars.” He added that he and his legal team spent roughly $1 million tracking down Jennings’ homes and other assets.
Bryco was one of a handful of Southern California gun manufacturers known as the “Ring of Fire,” which together produced millions of inexpensive handguns commonly called Saturday night specials. The guns often were linked to crimes and identified in crime traces by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Ruggieri had his Bryco 38 outfitted with an additional internal safety mechanism to demonstrate to the jury how the gun could have been made safer. Adding a similar locking mechanism to mass production would have cost 41 cents per gun, Ruggieri estimated, and would have allowed the gun to be unloaded without the risk of accidentally firing it.
Soon, Ruggieri plans to have the Bryco 38 destroyed along with dozens of other handguns he purchased to have tested for the lawsuit. But that won’t make up for his biggest regret following his decisive victory in Brandon’s case: getting outbid in his attempt to buy a cache of 20,000 Bryco guns sold at auction after Jennings declared bankruptcy.
Ruggieri had raised $500,000 to buy the guns and have them melted down, only to be outbid by Bryco’s former plant manager, Paul Jimenez. Despite restrictions on the sale that required the guns to be destroyed, Ruggieri claims many of the parts were reused in later models still made and sold.
“If I could do it over again, I would have ponied up my own money to buy those guns,” Ruggieri said.
Jimenez started his own company, Jimenez Arms Inc., after purchasing the guns. He continues to manufacture strikingly similar weapons in Nevada. In 2004, Jimenez sent a handgun to regulators for testing on which the word “Bryco” had been buffed out, state inspection records show.
Online firearm forums warn against buying Bryco guns; used ones can be purchased for less than $100.
Lawsuits around the country pinpoint flaws in the guns. In 2009, a 9 mm handgun made by another company owned by Jennings landed three people in the hospital when it started firing on its own at a gun range in Florida.
Today, the Bryco Model 38 and the slightly larger Bryco T-380 are included on the California Department of Justice’s decertification list of guns that cannot be sold because they don’t meet safety requirements. California is among a handful of states that require handgun model safety tests before a new gun can be sold, although some of the requirements are being challenged in court by a trade association representing the firearms industry.
The standards include a requirement that new models mark cartridges with the gun’s serial number when fired. Proponents say that can allow law enforcement to better trace guns used to commit crimes when a shell casing is left behind at the scene.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.