Most people would probably consider an illegal gun a public nuisance. But does the production, marketing, and distribution of weapons by the nation's largest gun manufacturers contribute to the violence in society - making them a threat to the public health and safety - a nuisance as defined by law.?
New York's Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is confident it does. As a result, yesterday New York became the first state to bring a groundbreaking lawsuit against nine major gun manufacturers, three importers, and twelve wholesalers, charging they violate the state's public nuisance law.
The goal is to get them to stop designing guns that are attractive to criminals.
"We now have every major city, the second biggest state, and the prospect of more states and the federal government saying this conduct will have to change," says David Kairys, a professor at Temple University School of Law in Philadelphia, and a consultant to the New York lawsuit.
A step beyond other suits
Experts say this suit goes beyond those brought by the 32 cities because states are much more powerful legal entities, and New York is using a legal theory that's expected to be more successful there.
"This does not require any law change, just the application of existing laws," says Mr. Kairys.
Illegal guns are already classified as a public nuisance in New York. But the state will have to prove that the manufacturers contribute to the problem.
Advocates of gun control believe the state will have no problem.
"Instead of using money to create safer weapons, such as guns with internal locking devices or personalized guns that can't be used by unauthorized users, they've spent their resources making guns more powerful, easier to conceal, and more deadly," says David Bernstein of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, a nonprofit Washington group that is co-council with New York in the suit.
Representatives of the gun manufacturing industry did not respond to calls by press time. But the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is not a party to the New York lawsuit, calls it "wrongheaded."
"The notion of holding a legal industry liable for what thugs do flies in the face of common sense and Americans know that," says Bill Powers, a spokesman for the NRA in Washington. He points out that about a dozen states have passed legislation to prevent these kinds of suits, including Texas.
But according to Mr. Bernstein, guns are the only legal product sold in this country that are not regulated by the product safety commission.
"Toy guns are more heavily regulated, teddy bears are more heavily regulated for safety than real guns are, and teddy bears don't kill 32,000 people every year," he says.
Missing the point
But Don Diamond, a manager of a gun store in Schenectady, N.Y. believes that gun control forces are missing the point.
"It's like suing car manufacturers because they sell them to people who get drunk and then drive," he says. "It's a morality question and you can't legislate morality. I don't see where they're coming from."
But gun-control forces have been gaining ground in New York State. Just last week, the legislature passed what's considered one of the broadest packages of gun-control measures in the country. New York City is also suing the gun manufacturers.
At the press conference yesterday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo joined Mr. Spitzer in announcing the suit - a sure indication of its popular appeal. Mr. Cuomo is thinking about running for governor in 2002.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society