States Act to Protect Gunmakers Lawmakers Consider Whether to Bar Local Governments from Suing Gun

Article excerpt

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 gunmakers. 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 such laws.

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 the 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. …