Gun litigation follows example of tobacco cases
June 6, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Now that states have taken on the powerful tobacco industry and won, cities are trying to follow their example and sue gun manufacturers.
Gun makers are in the sights of more than 20 cities and counties that have legislation pending to try to recoup the cost of violence caused by firearms.
"An impenetrable type of industry can in fact be penetrated, if you have good legal arguments. I think that's what the tobacco lawsuit brought to this case," said Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who filed suit against the gun industry earlier this year.
More municipalities could join the fray in the next several months, attorneys said Saturday at a gun litigation conference in the nation's capital, sponsored by the American Bar Association.
Unlike the tobacco settlement, the municipalities have sued gun manufacturers on different grounds.
Miami and New Orleans claim gun makers create unsafe products.
"If there is state-of-the-art design safety device which can make a product safer, and the industry has knowledge of that safety device, their failure to include that safety device makes them liable for the damage that results from that failure," said Danny Abell, an attorney representing New Orleans.
Chicago contends the industry has created a public nuisance by flooding the city with guns purchased in suburbs. Handgun sales are banned in the city.
The gun suit plaintiffs face some serious challenges. More than 20 states have proposed legislation to ban municipalities from suing gun makers.
And unlike cigarettes, gun manufacturers make no secret of the fact that their products are designed to kill. They object to being sued for creating efficient products, or for how people misuse them.
"Guns are very, very safe," said Richard Feldmen, a former executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council.
"Now some of the users and owners of the guns are not safe. But the gun does exactly what the manufacturers of the firearms promises it will do," Feldmen said.
Yet gun control advocates say litigation will cast a damaging spotlight on the conduct of the firearms industry, just as it did with tobacco.
"In the same way, we expect the gun litigation to shed the light of day on a very secretive industry that markets a very lethal product, that makes decisions that put people at risk," said Dennis Hennnigan of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
Having less money to burn than tobacco companies, gun makers could be forced to settle to avoid lengthy court battles, said attorney Jack Maistros, a gun litigation expert. Gun makers bring in at most $2 billion a year, compared to $45 billion for tobacco companies.
Local governments contend they have an objective other than a big financial payoff.
"Money is not our primary aim. Changing the behavior and the practice of the gun industry is," said New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial.
California takes new aim at gun industry
Handgun Control and The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence
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