Massachusetts' Tighter Gun Restrictions Big Blow to Manufacturers

Article excerpt

BOSTON -- For companies that make pistols, doing business in Massachusetts is about to become a lot tougher.

The state's Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, bypassing the Massachusetts Legislature, has imposed some of the tightest restrictions ever on handguns. If the rules stick, gunmakers for the first time could be vulnerable to the same kinds of consumer product- liability suits that manufacturers from cars to ladders now face.

Gunmakers such as Sturm, Ruger & Co., Smith & Wesson and others are suing, saying that Harshbarger overstepped his power and is meddling with interstate commerce. It's an argument that probably won't work, experts say. "The notion that freedom of interstate commerce keeps a state from regulating a product flies in the face of 200 years of legal tradition," said Peter Enrich, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. The new rules require that gunmakers produce safer weapons. Failure to do so could give a victim of a shooting grounds for seeking compensatory and -- more painful for firearms companies -- punitive damages, which sometimes run into millions of dollars. "Gun manufacturers are afraid that when the new safety requirements go into effect, it will show how easy it is to make fixes and prevent injuries," said Kristen Rand, a lawyer with the Violence Policy Center in Washington. Such evidence could be particularly effective in swaying a jury, she said. That threat already has some gun sellers running for cover. "The regulations open up too many liability issues," said Myron Mullins, president of ABN Sports Supply, an Ohio-based distributor that has stopped shipping handguns to Massachusetts dealers. Harshbarger, attorney general of one of the country's most liberal states, may have wanted an outright ban on handguns. While never before adopted at the state level, at least three municipalities, two in the Chicago suburbs and one in Maryland, have banned the sale and possession of handguns after Morton Grove, Ill., successfully barred pistols in 1981. The Illinois Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld the Morton Grove ban as legal and not in violation of the U.S. Constitution's 2nd Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept the case for review. The last Supreme Court decision on gun control came in 1939, when the high court declared that the 2nd Amendment didn't prevent the federal government from regulating sawed-off shotguns. Because the country's highest court didn't go beyond the narrow facts of the case, many legal authorities don't believe the Supreme Court has made a final decision on gun control. The Massachusetts regulations, which go into effect in several phases this year, also could make it uneconomical for gun makers to do business in the state. By some estimates, 10 percent to 15 percent of the state's roughly 350 gun dealers could go out of business, said Michael Yacino, executive director of the Gun Owners' Action League in Northboro, Mass. …