To cities on the front lines of the battle against violent crime,
it was a brilliant stroke: sue gunmakers. If the tobacco industry
was partly culpable for the medical costs of smoking, the reasoning
went, then gunmakers should bear some responsibility for the social
costs of shootings.
But almost as soon as cities began mobilizing their legal teams,
lawmakers in nearly two dozen statehouses moved to protect
No fewer than 18 state legislatures are considering whether to
prohibit local governments from filing lawsuits against the gun
industry. Georgia, Arkansas, and South Dakota have already passed
As a result, a war of words has erupted between state lawmakers
and local officials who say their legal rights are being usurped.
Proponents counter that the laws are aimed at shielding a besieged
industry whose product is protected by the Second Amendment. But
critics worry about what precedent the laws might set for product-
liability exemptions, and what might come next.
Several US cities including Atlanta, New Orleans, and Bridgeport,
Conn., have already filed suit against gun manufacturers, modeling
their arguments after ones used against the tobacco industry. And in
New York, a jury this February already found nine gunmakers liable
for a series of shootings.
Although that case was brought by individuals, cities took it as
further encouragement for legal action. State legislatures, however,
saw it as a signal to move quickly. Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia has
also introduced a bill to Congress that similarly would derail
litigation against the gun industry.
Attempts to limit an industry's liability through statutes have
become increasingly common, says Douglas Bragg, a Denver product-
liability lawyer. "There are a lot of groups seeking special
immunity from the law," from construction contractors to the ski
industry. To win a shield of protection, it helps to be "somebody
who contributes a lot to the state economy and has connections in
legislature," he says. It's an added bonus if your product can be
used safely - which is true of guns but not tobacco.
For lawmakers, stifling gun-industry suits is about protecting
citizens' constitutional right to bear arms. The cost to the
firearms industry to defend these suits could produce a "chilling
effect" on Americans' ability to purchase a firearm, says Republican
state Sen. Ron Teck, the author of Colorado's antilitigation bill.
The measure was approved by the state Senate last week, and is
expected to get a warm reception in the House. …