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Dueling Bills on Capitol Hill Target Guns.

With cities now challenging gun manufacturers in court, the longtime struggle over gun control and the rights of gun owners has been infused with energy and importance on Capitol Hill this year. Last week, some lawmakers filed measures that would prohibit such suits, while others introduced legislation that would support the right of cities to sue.

Senators Durbin (D-Ill.), Lautenburg (D-N.J.), and Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill on March 4 that would offer financial incentives to encourage more local governments to sue the gun industry.

"These city lawsuits are not about money. The goal here is to hold the gun industry accountable for unsafe products and irresponsible marketing," Lautenberg said. Under the bill, municipalities, states, and counties could sue firearms manufacturers and distributors to recover both their costs and costs borne by the federal government for gun violence. If successful in getting a verdict for federal costs, the litigating body would keep two-thirds of the amount, and send one-third to the federal Treasury.

Representative Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) introduced a companion to Lautenberg's "Gun Industry Accountability Act" in the House of Representatives. Ford said, "Gun injuries result in tens of billions of dollars in health care and other costs each year, and 80 percent of these costs are born by the taxpayer. This bill sets forth a mechanism by which cities, counties, states and the federal government can recover costs and make our streets safer."

Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), fired back with a bill of his own making the case for the opposing point of view. Targeting the legal argument being made by cities, he introduced the "Firearms Heritage Preservation Act" that would block suits against the gun industry based on the unlawful use of weapons by others. "The real agenda of cities suing gun manufacturers is not public safety but greed," Barr said. "These trial lawyers are arguing that the maker of a product should be held liable when that product is used improperly by a criminal," Barr added.

Cities filing the lawsuits say they had to seek monetary awards to obtain court jurisdiction, but that their real goal is to obtain concessions from the $1.4 billion gun industry on firearms safety and marketing practices.

Critics of the lawsuits say the cities are trying to drive gun makers out of business. Atlanta lawyer Timothy Bumann, who is defending several firearms companies, said "The cities are unwilling to deal with their own social problems on their own streets, and they're looking for somebody else to blame." Opponents also warn that the lawsuit tactic could be used to go after other industries, like automobiles and beer makers. The lawsuits plow some new and murky ground in public nuisance and product liability law.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she planned to counteract Mr. Barr's bill by introducing legislation within the next two weeks that would guarantee cities the right to sue gun manufacturers. "Congress shouldn't interfere with the rights of states and cities to use litigation to protect its citizens," said Boxer. Boxer's bill would guarantee cities the right to sue gun manufacturers and distributors even if the state legislature passed a law prohibiting such suits.

On another front, Rep. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) offered a back-up for the cities seeking to recoup millions in taxpayer dollars spent for emergency police and medical service on gun violence victims. His measure would allow individual crime victims to sue the gun manufacturers in federal court for their own losses as well as for costs incurred by the local government.

Blagojevich's bill was prompted in part by the current push in at least 14 states for legislation that would block cities from filing lawsuits against the industry.

It isn't clear whether any of the bills now pending in Congress will hit their mark. Congress hasn't passed a major gun control measure since 1994, when it banned most assault weapons. To date, five cities--Atlanta, Chicago, Miami-Dade, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Conn.--have filed lawsuits against gun manufacturers. Another dozen cites and a few states are considering lawsuits.

The National League of Cities does not endorse litigation against firearms manufacturers or advocate that cities should bring suits against gun manufacturers.

NLC does believe cities and towns that choose to litigate should not be preempted by the federal government from bringing court actions on behalf of their citizens' health and safety.
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Author:Otero, Juan
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 15, 1999
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