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The Gun Lawsuits

February 2, 1999



Large-scale litigation against gun manufacturers is gaining momentum. It's propelled to some extent by lawyers who sniff another big potential payout - like last year's tobacco settlement, in which companies agreed to pay states more than $200 billion over 25 years to offset health costs from cigarette use.

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But, more important, the lawsuits are driven by the human costs of the commerce, legal and illegal, in firearms, many of which lack safety devices to prevent accidental or unauthorized firing.

The legal strategies of plaintiffs are varied. In Brooklyn, N.Y., the families of six people killed by gunfire are accusing gunmakers of negligence in the distribution of their products. Their attorneys hope to show that manufacturers flood the market in states with lax gun-control laws, with the excess flowing toward illegal street sales in strict states like New York.

Proving criminal irresponsibility along these lines will be difficult, say legal analysts. But the Brooklyn plaintiffs are rightly trying to break new ground. Past suits that tried to hold single manufacturers liable for particular guns used in murders failed. The effort to indict the whole gun industry for negligence in marketing a dangerous product clearly follows the tobacco litigation lead.

Statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms indicate that as many as half the guns used in crimes have been purchased legally, rather than stolen.

A different tack is being taken by the City of New Orleans and Miami's county government, which have launched suits against gunmakers on grounds they have failed to equip their their products with technology designed to make them safer, such as trigger locks and "smart" devices that would stop anyone but authorized users from firing them. New Orleans and Miami hope to recover millions of dollars spent in treating gunshot victims.

These cities are far from alone. Chicago has filed a suit against gun manufacturers, alleging they've oversupplied gun retailers in the city's suburbs knowing the weapons would enter the urban black market, thus creating a "public nuisance." Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, and Bridgeport, Conn., among others, are either pursuing or weighing lawsuits of their own. They'll closely watch courtroom action now under way.

Gunmakers, however, present a much different target than cigarette firms. To begin with, their profits are smaller - so the "pot" eyed by litigants is nowhere near as large. Beyond that, gun manufacturers can argue that their products, unlike cigarettes, can be safely used. They can also argue that great differences - in safety technology, for instance - exist between individual gunmakers.

What they can't deny is that gun violence is a major and costly problem in this country. The political process has yielded only limited progress toward solving it. The litigation should push the companies toward stronger safety measures and the public toward stronger demands for gun controls. That's all to the good.