Magazine article Insight on the News

Gun Makers Tough Target

Magazine article Insight on the News

Gun Makers Tough Target

Article excerpt

With more cities and several states poised to sue gun makers, ricochets from the first five legal challenges have spawned state and federal bills to make the industry legally bulletproof.

A synchronized barrage of lawsuits by cities targeting handgun manufacturers may have misfired, unifying the industry and triggering new state and federal legislation that could block the cities' assault.

New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Bridgeport, Conn., have filed similar lawsuits against gun makers in a 66-day period. The cities have been working with the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, headed by Sarah Brady.

All five lawsuits break legal ground, charging that legal sales overflow into illicit channels and create a "public nuisance," and that handguns are fundamentally unsafe because they are not "personalized" with built-in electronic devices to render them harmless if stolen or used by anyone but the owner. Every gun maker thus is "collectively liable" for damages from guns made by any one of them, according to former civil-rights lawyer David Kairys, a Temple University law professor and cocounsel in the Chicago case.

The cities' motive "is to drive the makers out of business" says Atlanta lawyer Timothy A. Bumann, who is defending several firearms companies. "The cities are unwilling to deal with their own social problems on their own streets, and they're looking for somebody else to blame."

Indeed, the monetary stakes for the $1.4 billion American gun industry are high: Chicago wants $433 million in damages for one 30-month period on the grounds that handgun companies intentionally fed demands from Chicago criminals for weapons they can't buy legally. Bridgeport's lawsuit seeks $100 million.

Total sales of all civilian firearms and ammunition nationwide amount to about $2 billion annually, according to Steven Sliwa, top executive of Colt's Manufacturing Co., with $500 million of that for handguns -- down 50 percent in the last few years. Handguns are made in the United States by relatively small companies that claim they are the wrong target if cities truly want to curb criminal and accidental shootings, arguing they have nothing like the profits at stake in the recent wave of antismoking legislation.

Nevertheless, the gun industry has launched preemptive legal strikes, asking states to rule such lawsuits out of bounds before they are even filed. The National Rifle Association, or NRA, acknowledges it has sought legislative relief in Florida, Texas and Georgia, where a law enacted in February may affect Atlanta's court case. NRA chief lobbyist James J. Baker calls the city lawsuits frivolous but says "simply defending against them until they can be dismissed could have a real impact on the ability of Americans to lawfully acquire firearms for recreation and self-defense."

In Congress, Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, has fired both barrels at Democratic antigun proposals, including the "Gun Industry Accountability Act" introduced March 4 by Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer of New York. By allowing the cities to assess federal expenses and send one-third of the damages to Washington, Barr argues, the bill proves "the real agenda of cities suing gun manufacturers is not public safety but greed." The congressman heads a bipartisan group of 24 lawmakers who have introduced a bill to block cities and states from filing the antigun lawsuits. "This is a national issue and it cries out for a national remedy" says Barr.

Antigun activists in Congress are returning fire. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, has announced she will introduce a bill that would guarantee local jurisdictions the right to file such lawsuits. "If local governments believe the fight against crime is being hampered by the mass proliferation of guns" she says, "I believe it is in the national interest to allow them to take action in court. …

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