Gunmakers in Legal Cross Hairs New York Decision Will Likely Encourage More Antigun Activists to Pushforward

Article excerpt

For the first time since the assault-weapons ban five years ago, firearms manufacturers are on the defensive.

Cities are starting to bring lawsuits, the White House is cranking up efforts to rein in sales at gun conventions, and the industry faces the threat of an increasing number of lawsuits brought by individuals who are the victims of gun violence.

Last week, antigun advocates were particularly buoyed by a New York jury verdict that found a group of gun manufacturers marketed their arms negligently and were directly responsible for three killings. "I am sure this is going to shake the industry to its foundations," says Dennis Henigan, legal director for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington. As a result of the Brooklyn verdict, many experts expect other victims of handgun violence to be encouraged to file lawsuits. Mr. Henigan compares the lawsuit to the tobacco litigation, which took years of trials before plaintiffs began to find legal theories that might succeed. "This is going to send a message to the plaintiffs' bar to take a fresh look," he says. Even the industry, which plans to appeal the verdict, says the defeat could cause problems. "The public perception would be that we lost this case - even if we win on appeal - and that would fuel these lawsuits against us," says Richard Feldman of the American Sports Shooting Council, a Washington organization that represents gun manufacturers. In addition, the verdict might spark other cities and states to file suits. On Feb. 4, Atlanta joined Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and Bridgeport, Conn., in filing suit against the firearms companies. In six months, legal experts expect another dozen lawsuits. "The win might make them come quicker," says David Kairys, a professor at Temple University Law School in Philadelphia who came up with the original concept of cities suing the gun companies. Long road ahead Despite the Brooklyn verdict, winning the lawsuits may still be a challenge. A recent survey by DecisionQuest, a Los Angeles trial consultant, found 62 percent of the people it surveyed were against the lawsuits. "Unlike product liability, where people feel threatened, here they are concerned that their civil liberties are being impinged on," says Philip Anthony, chief executive of DecisionQuest, which does not represent any gun manufacturers. Some key organizations are starting to get involved in the fight. Last week, the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the nation's most potent interest groups, decided to put some of its energy into fighting the lawsuits. …