Court's verdict on handguns: Let the seller beware!

A state appeals court ruling in Maryland charts new waters in the area of legal responsibility for misuse of handguns. This decision allows anyone wounded by a so-called Saturday night special during the commission of a crime to file suit against manufacturers and marketers of these small, cheap handguns.

Predictably, lobbyists seeking to control or ban handguns are elated with this decision, which they say could spark similar legislation elsewhere. ``In any event, it has the debate back in front of the public,'' insists Michael Hancock, who doubles as president of the Foundation for Handgun Education and general counsel of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH).

Also, as might be expected, representatives of the National Rifle Association deplore the ruling as a dangerous overstepping of judicial bounds. The NRA's David Warner says the pro-gun lobby could ask the US Supreme Court to review the Maryland case. But he concedes this is unlikely, since no federal issues are apparent.

The thrust to repeal the ruling will almost certainly come from Maryland's legislature -- with gun advocates and weapons manufacturers leading the way.

What the jurists did has ramifications for other states and will likely affect the future of the gun control movement in this country, which has foundered of late.

NCBH has long pointed out that small, easily concealable handguns are used in 22,000 killings annually. But NRA's well-financed lobby, buttressed by other ``right-to-bear-arms'' groups, has effectively warded off meaningful restrictions.

Until recently, attempts to place liability on gun manufacturers had failed in nine states -- including high-crime states like California, Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.

The Maryland court took note of this. But it decided to break new legal ground by charting a separate, limited area of strict liability for the makers and sellers of Saturday night specials.

Judge John C. Eldridge, writing for a unanimous court, said: ``In light of the ever-growing number of deaths and injuries due to such handguns being used in criminal activity, the imposition of such liability is warranted by today's circumstances.''

Perhaps Judge Eldridge and his colleagues were making a moral statement as much as a legal one.

Gun-ban advocates allow that this situation does not fit the traditional product-liability mold. But NCBH's Hancock does see an analogy to New Jersey's ``social host'' law and other ``dramshop'' legislation now on the books in more than 20 states. The social-host law broke legal precedent by holding that ordinary citizens who serve liquor in their homes are liable to civil and criminal charges when such drinking results in an automobile accident. Other laws hold pubs and restaurants legally responsibl e for accidents that result from serving liquor to minors or to visibly intoxicated adults.

NRA's Warner insists that the dramshop concept does not fit gunmakers who, unlike barkeeps, he says, have no way of knowing who buys their wares or how they might be used.

The Maryland court, however, looked at it differently. It ruled that ``the manufacturer or marketer of a Saturday night special knows or ought to know that he is making or selling a product principally to be used in criminal activity.''

Judge Eldridge said that because of ``cheap-quality materials, poor manufacture, inaccuracy, and unreliability,'' this type of handgun is ``virtually useless for the legitimate purposes of law enforcement, sport, and protection of persons, property, and businesses.''

Interestingly, Maryland's ruling comes at a time when weapons marketers are promoting the sale of handguns to women for protection against neighborhood crime.

Gun-owner groups are actively lobbying to lift state restrictions on the use of handguns. For example, a battle is brewing in Massachusetts over the authority of police chiefs to deny gun permits to persons who they think don't need them and shouldn't have them.

So far, the courts have upheld this discretionary power in the name of public safety. The NRA's state affiliate, however, insists that this provision tends to discriminate against women, blacks, and other minorities.

New showdowns are inevitable over the right to bear arms vs. the right to protect the public against the irresponsible use of guns. A Thursday column

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