Crime-fighting American cities that launched lawsuits against gunmakers and dealers over the past couple years have been on a bumpy legal ride.
One bump came last week when a local judge in Chicago told the city's lawyers that their statistical evidence was really grounds for new gun laws, not grounds for civil damages in a court.
The judge's point is well taken. The best people to redress the harm done because of poorly regulated or poorly policed gun sales are lawmakers.
But such action to hold the gun industry accountable for its lethal wares has often been sluggish, at best.
The Chicago suit, like those of other cities, rests on the proposition that gunmakers and dealers willingly conspire to market and sell weapons to "straw buyers" who supply urban criminals. Such practices, the suit alleges, violate public-nuisance laws.
So far, these suits have been dismissed or allowed in about equal numbers.
The cities are rightfully worried. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley notes that an investigation by his police force has shown that straw buyers of guns are serious sources of violence. He may well be right in asserting that the gun industry cynically feeds such sales. He vows to appeal the judge's ruling.
Meanwhile, in California a similar case is moving forward. A superior court judge just refused to dismiss a suit brought by Los Angeles County and the City of San Francisco. That case may yet reach trial.
The negative side of the gun suits is their end run around legislators. If voters want laws to curb gun sales, they must tell legislators who are still beholden to the gun industry and gun-owners groups. And the suit-filing cities need to persuade the public that they are not just trying to squeeze big- dollar settlements from yet another industry linked to a social ill.
The positive side is that these suits help focus attention on important issues related to gun marketing.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society