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Tough on Guns.

There's a basic principle: If you make a product that's genuinely dangerous, you have some responsibility for the damage it might cause. Oddly, this doctrine has rarely been applied to the manufacturers of guns. But thanks to five American cities, that's about to change.

Like the tobacco companies, the gun companies find themselves under siege in lawsuits. The suits allege that people who make guns should do all they can to see that they're used properly, provide all the safety devices possible to prevent their misuse, and to organize distribution systems that don't make it easy for the guns to fall into criminal hands.

The suits have the potential to transform the gun debate. Until now, it has largely been about laws to regulate the purchase of guns and to force registration. It's been a battle involving "society's interest in controlling guns versus the inconvenience to gun owners," says Dennis Henigan, legal director at the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

When the fight is cast that way, many law-abiding gun owners come to see themselves as under siege from liberal, big government regulators who want to complicate their lives and take away their hunting rifles.

But the lawsuits make gun controllers look less like advocates of a meddling nanny state and more like champions of consumer protection and corporate responsibility.

No wonder the National Rifle Association is pushing state legislatures to pass bills banning local governments from suing gun manufacturers and distributors. The bill introduced in Florida this week is a truly astonishing attack on local autonomy: It would make it a felony for any local official to file a lawsuit against the gun industry.

And this is no laughing matter. The Georgia Legislature lure already passed a bill prohibiting anti-gun lawsuits. And as Sharon Walsh reported in The Washington Post, such proposals are about to be introduced in Texas, Michigan, Kansas, Vermont, Wyoming, Louisiana, Minnesota and Alabama. The Texas bill will be an interesting test for Gov. George W. Bush and his "compassionate conservatism."

Gun control has been gaining ground ever since former President George Bush pushed hard for a war on drugs and his drug czar, William Bennett, argued that some gun regulations were needed to win it.

Under President Clinton, gun control has become a winning political issue. In cities and suburbs, candidates who support gun control have won votes by insisting that being "tough on crime" means being tough on guns. Police officials have stepped out to urge gun restrictions.

It's hard to paint advocates of stronger gun laws as upper-class wimps when the men and women in blue are at their side.

The lawsuits open new lines of argument. "We know that the illegal market in guns is formed largely from diversions from the legal market," Henigan said in an interview. "The gun lobby would like people to believe that it's formed largely through the theft of guns--bad people stealing guns from good people."

Henigan points to recent research showing that 24 percent of the gun industry's production finds its way into criminal activities within 8 years of manufacture. "I doubt that you can say that of any other product."

In Chicago, "Operation Gun-smoke" sent police agents into 12 stores in the Chicago suburbs. Handgun sales are illegal in Chicago, and guns sold in suburban stores were later traced to crime in the city. The undercover agents found gun dealers lax and even willing to offer them advice on how to get around the law.

Chicago alleges that gun manufacturers send weapons to suburban stores knowing they'll be sold into Chicago.

The lawsuits--brought by Chicago, New Orleans, Bridgeport, Atlanta and Miami-Dade--have another agenda. If gun manufacturers fear paying large amounts in damages, they may agree to more rational rules regulating guns. Industry fears were heightened by a verdict three weeks ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a suit brought on behalf of seven shooting victims. The jury found that 15 manufacturers had distributed guns negligently.

"A benefit of these suits is that they may give the industry substantial incentives to change its conduct," Henigan said. "The industry may tolerate a certain amount of regulation that it has opposed in the past." No wonder the NRA wants to stop these suits cold.

Critics of excessive litigation are right to say that lawsuits are not always the best way to solve a problem. But lawsuits can clarify issues and force action. In this case, going to court may save lives.
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Title Annotation:lawsuits against gun makers
Author:Dionne, E.J., Jr.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 8, 1999
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