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
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,
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
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. …