To cities on the front lines of the battle against violent crime, it was a brilliant stroke: sue gunmakers. If the tobacco industry was partly culpable for the medical costs of smoking, the reasoning went, then gunmakers should bear some responsibility for the social costs of shootings.
But almost as soon as cities began mobilizing their legal teams, lawmakers in nearly two dozen statehouses moved to protect gunmakers. No fewer than 18 state legislatures are considering whether to prohibit local governments from filing lawsuits against the gun industry. Georgia, Arkansas, and South Dakota have already passed such laws.
As a result, a war of words has erupted between state lawmakers and local officials who say their legal rights are being usurped. Proponents counter that the laws are aimed at shielding a besieged industry whose product is protected by the Second Amendment. But critics worry about what precedent the laws might set for product-liability exemptions, and what might come next.
Several US cities including Atlanta, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Conn., have already filed suit against gun manufacturers, modeling their arguments after ones used against the tobacco industry. And in New York, a jury this February already found nine gunmakers liable for a series of shootings.
Although that case was brought by individuals, cities took it as further encouragement for legal action. State legislatures, however, saw it as a signal to move quickly. Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia has also introduced a bill to Congress that similarly would derail litigation against the gun industry.
Attempts to limit an industry's liability through statutes have become increasingly common, says Douglas Bragg, a Denver product-liability lawyer. "There are a lot of groups seeking special immunity from the law," from construction contractors to the ski industry. To win a shield of protection, it helps to be "somebody who contributes a lot to the state economy and has connections in the legislature," he says. It's an added bonus if your product can be used safely - which is true of guns but not tobacco.
For lawmakers, stifling gun-industry suits is about protecting citizens' constitutional right to bear arms. The cost to the firearms industry to defend these suits could produce a "chilling effect" on Americans' ability to purchase a firearm, says Republican state Sen. Ron Teck, the author of Colorado's antilitigation bill. The measure was approved by the state Senate last week, and is expected to get a warm reception in the House.
"What it would do, if a few of these lawsuits were successful, is put a number of the old, good American manufacturers out of business," he says. "My feeling was that the real agenda [of cities] was to find another source of revenue after the tobacco settlement."
Local leaders here bristle at that suggestion. For one thing, no Colorado city was poised to sue the gun industry. That, some say, makes the legislation unnecessary. "It's a solution in search of a problem," says Sam Mamet of the Colorado Municipal League.
In addition, Mr. Mamet worries that the state's intervention may touch off a disastrous trend for local control. "If the legislature is approving a blanket policy on liability on this subject, what's next?" he asks.
Yet others see the lawsuit-blocking legislation as evidence of the NRA's clout in statehouses. "The citizenry doesn't have the ability to pour millions of dollars into elections the way that the NRA can and does," says Brian Morton, spokesman for the Center for Prevention of Handgun Violence, which is representing New Orleans, Miami-Dade County, and Bridgeport in their lawsuits. "The only reason that cities have had to sue gun manufacturers is because cities have been taking it on the chin for gun violence."
The cities simply want to hold gunmakers to the same standards as other manufacturers, he adds. "If you make something, and it's inherently dangerous, you've got a responsibility to put on as many protective safety devices as you can."
The NRA says firearms are safer today than ever. "Fatal firearms accidents in this country are at an all-time low," says spokesman Jim Manown. Moreover, gun violence is reduced by enforcing laws, not regulation of a "safe and lawful product," he says.
The NRA sees the lawsuits against gunmakers as frivolous, says Mr. Manown. "They are trying to hold an innocent third party responsible for someone else's actions."
But whether the cities' claims are valid is something that should be decided by courts, not state legislatures, counters Mr. Morton. "The cities definitely have a grievance. And that grievance ... needs to be heard in court."
In Colorado, the situation is also complicated by the fact that all major cities are "home rule" under the state constitution. That means they are guaranteed the right to "sue and be sued unfettered by the state," Mamet notes. If the legislature moves to preempt city lawsuits, at least one mayor, Denver's Wellington Webb has promised to sue: "We cannot allow our rights as a home-rule city to be abridged or terminated."