March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

IT HAS BEEN JUST OVER FOUR YEARS since Aaron “Ari” Halberstam, a 16-year-old rabbinical student, climbed into a van with some friends, returning home to Brooklyn after a prayer vigil in Manhattan. He never made it. As the van approached the Brooklyn Bridge, it was attacked by 28-year-old Rashid Baz, a Lebanese extremist who sprayed the vehicle from his cab with at least 18 rounds from a 9-mm Cobray assault pistol. Sitting in the rear of the van, Halberstam was struck in the head. He died five days later, and Baz, convicted of murder and 14 counts of attempted murder, is serving a sentence of 141 years. But Ari’s mother, Devorah, and the rest of his family refused to let the matter end there. “There isn’t a day that goes by,” says Devorah, 41, “that I will not do something in my son’s memory.”

Last week, a trial of the lawsuit filed by the Halberstams and Nachum Sosonkin, a student severely wounded in the shooting, got under way in federal district court in Brooklyn—and no matter what the outcome, the case has already made history. The suit against Wayne and Sylvia Daniel and their various businesses (alleged manufacturers and sellers of the 9-mm Cobray that Baz used) marks the first time that the maker of a legally sold, nondefective firearm has ever been taken before a jury with the possibility of being held liable for the damage the weapon inflicted. “Just as the tobacco debate has refocused on the industry, this case will recast the gun-violence debate,” says Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington, which is assisting the Halberstams in their suit. “Finally we will be focusing on the irresponsible conduct of the gun industry.”

Lawyers for the Daniels, who are divorced but still work together, portray them as honest, law-abiding citizens with some modest firearms businesses in Ducktown, Tenn. Little is known about the couple, though news accounts have described them as wealthy—a characterization one of their lawyers, Daniel Kane, disputes. “[Sylvia] is someone who loved guns and had a good business sense,” says Kane. “They do not live extravagantly. I don’t even think Sylvia owns a Rolls-Royce anymore.”

Though Wayne Daniel holds the trademark for the Cobray assault pistol, and he and his ex-wife sell the weapons through their mail-order business, their attorneys insist that the actual gun Baz fired was a pirated model made by some other manufacturer. “The irony is that we didn’t even sell the parts that the plaintiff alleges were used,” says another of the Daniels’ lawyers, Steven Harfenist. “The plaintiffs know that, but they don’t care. They’ve got a political agenda.”

For their part, the Halberstams’ attorneys voice confidence that they will be able to demonstrate that Baz’s Cobray M11/9 came from the Daniels. They intend to show jurors a catalog of the Cobray line promoting the firepower and outlaw cachet of the weapons—touted as the “Drug Lord” choice in one description. The Cobrays were sold as kits to anyone with a phone and a credit card, no questions asked—no waiting period, no background checks to weed out felons or the insane—and without the serial numbers the law would require had the guns been sold assembled. The kits came complete except for one part, a version of which the Daniels sold separately, a system the Halberstams’ attorneys argue was intended to circumvent restrictions on the sale of such deadly weapons. “These defendants essentially thumbed their noses at the laws designed to protect us,” says gun-control advocate Henigan. “They tried to come as close as they could to selling the gun without subjecting themselves to rules and regulations.”

The Halberstams are seeking $25 million in damages from the Daniels, though it is clear that no judgment will lift their grief. Devorah, who volunteers at a children’s organization, and her husband, David, 46, who works for the city of New York as a manager in the department of environmental protection, say their four surviving children, ranging in age from 18 to 7, are still haunted by the loss of their older brother. “I could never replace the youth that was robbed from them,” says Devorah. “They are not like other children.” And closure, says Devorah, is simply beyond the power of the law to provide. “Ari,” she says sadly, “will forever be part of me.”


NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City, JANE. SIMS PODESTA in Washington and GAIL WESCOTT in Atlanta

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