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Shooting victims' suit against gun industry opens in New York

January 6, 1999
Web posted at: 7:15 p.m. EST (0015 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The opening round of a lawsuit against gun manufacturers began Wednesday in a Brooklyn courtroom, in a case being watched around the United States.

Observers say the suit, brought by the families of six people killed in shootings and one victim who survived, could do to the firearms industry what similar cases have done to tobacco companies.

Plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the 30 manufacturers and 15 distributors named in the suit make and market more weapons than legitimate buyers want. Gun traffickers have then been able to move the excess weapons from Southern states, where gun-control laws are weaker, to criminals in states like New York that have strong gun-control laws, the suit alleges.

"The defendants who are manufacturers and distributors of handguns, in the face of intolerable levels of gun violence, knowingly failed to take the most basic precautions and actions to minimize the likelihood their guns would cause injuries and loss," said Elisa Barnes, a lawyer for the families.

The plaintiffs' star witness is expected to be retired Smith & Wesson executive Robert Haas, who claims the industry knows that guns that are legally bought are then sold into the underground market.

But Richard Feldman, a spokesman for the industry, said Haas' testimony won't be all it's cracked up to be.

"I don't think it'll be damaging at all. It'll be ho-hum," he said. "Out of context, it sounds very exciting."

Losing the case could set off a free-for-all in which the industry might be forced to pay billions in damages to cities around the country. It could also lead to restrictions on gun marketing and production. Some mayors say they hope to follow the successes of state attorneys general who sued the tobacco industry and won billions in settlements.

Feldman, the executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, discounted comparisons Wednesday to state lawsuits against the tobacco industry.

"We're always concerned when there's litigation against us," said Feldman, a spokesman for the American Sports Shooting Council, a trade association for gun manufacturers. But the industry has "tremendous faith in the jury system."

"No one in the firearm industry did anything wrong," Feldman said.

The council compares the suits to a suit against a California winery when a store sells alcohol to a minor.

In the past, gun companies have defeated lawsuits charging that they made defective guns or objects that were inherently dangerous. But the Brooklyn suit is the first to take a broader perspective and charge them with negligent marketing.

The theory behind the Brooklyn suit is similar to an argument made by lawyers for the city of Chicago, so officials in several U.S. cities are monitoring the New York trial.

The Chicago lawsuit argues that manufacturers knowingly marketed weapons to criminals, ignoring "even the most basic controls." New Orleans' lawsuit claims manufacturers failed to include adequate safety devices in firearms to prevent their use by criminals, children and unauthorized users.

Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell said Tuesday his city will sue gun manufacturers to recover the costs of crimes involving firearms, and Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles are eyeing similar lawsuits. Some legal experts expect more lawsuits to follow.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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