Crime victims attempt to hold handgun manufacturers liable for damages

Handgun manufacturers are becoming the target of a new kind of legal attack.

Victims of crimes committed with a handgun are suing the gunmakers for damages, alleging that handguns violate product liability laws because they are dangerous and unsafely distributed.

Attorneys and others backing this approach predict the result could force handgun manufacturers to take more responsibility for putting controls on the distribution of their products.

But critics of this strategy, including spokesmen for gun manufacturers, say it is an incorrect, unfair attempt to substitute courtroom judgments for the legislative process. They contend a variety of products and their distribution could be considered unsafe, including automobiles and knives.

Product liability laws, these critics argue, apply to defective products, not ones considered simply unsafe, they contend. The criminal, not some third party (the gun manufacturers) are the only ones that can be blamed for a crime, they contend.

Two recent court decisions have given notoriety to the question of the legal responsibilities of handgun manufacturers.

In one case, a company sued Smith & Wesson, a gun manufacturer, for $10,000 damages when one of their sales clerks was killed by a handgun in a robbery in Flushing, Mich. Attorneys for the store raised the issue of product liability, but the US District Court judge dismissed the case, says J. Thomas Richardson, an attorney with Smith & Wesson.

In another case, the jury in a US District Court in Washington, D.C., awarded damages of more than $2 million to a relative of a man killed by a firearm stolen from the premises of the National Rifle Association. The judge is studying whether to accept the jury verdict, which would require the NRA to pay the damages.

Stuart Speiser, a New York attorney whose firm represented the relative, says the NRA case shows a third party can be penalized in a firearms incident. He contends that by the same reasoning, handgun manufacturers can be found in violation of law for unsafe distribution in cases in which a handgun is used in a crime.

Gun manufacturers contend they are being careful in their distribution systems, says Mr. Speiser. But, he adds, ''You watch what will happen if they get some million-dollar verdicts against them. They can be a lot more careful.''

One of the attorneys guiding a suit to court is Howard Siegel of Rockville, Md. He is representing a man shot with a handgun during a robbery of a store last year. An FBI ballistics test showed that the gun the man was shot with was made by a German company, Rohm Gesellschaft, and distributed by a Miami-based company, R.G. Industries. Both firms are being sued for a total of $500 million in damages.

''We're not saying they (handguns) shouldn't be produced,'' says Mr. Siegel. But handgun distribution systems should be made safer, such as limiting their sale to law enforcement officials and others who can ''handle them safely,'' he contends.

An R.G. Industries official failed to return a Monitor call regarding this topic.

Jack Campbell, a spokesman for Colt Industries, a firearms manufacturer, says of such suits: ''We believe the responsibility for criminal action must be assigned to the individual committing that act and not to an instrument or instruments used.''

But Nelson T. (Pete) Shields, chairman of Handgun Control Inc., a private lobby group in Washington, says gunmakers should shoulder a greater ''responsibility'' for safe distribution of handguns. ''The manufacturer has a responsibility to know if the dealers are responsible themselves,'' he says.

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