Michigan: "Showdown over guns drags on in courts"


January 3, 2003, 08:52 AM

Showdown over guns drags on in courts

5 years after 1st lawsuit, no trials are going
January 3, 2003


WASHINGTON -- They worked for hours, calculating and figuring. And after weeks, they had a number: $400 million.

That was how much Detroit officials determined gun violence had cost the city over 10 years to send out the police, treat the uninsured, bury the dead and clean the blood from the streets.

"You think about the loss of life, the lives shattered," said then-Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, now chairman of the DickinsonWrightlaw firm. "When you consider the medical damage, it becomes a considerable expense."

In 1999, Detroit became the fourth of what would grow to 33 jurisdictions around the nation suing gun makers, distributors and retailers, accusing them of pumping increasingly lethal handguns into urban areas and ignoring the resulting mayhem.

But five years after the first lawsuit was filed, not a single case has yet come to trial, nine cases have been dismissed and the only seeming victory -- a much-heralded deal between Smith & Wesson and the Clinton administration -- has died a quiet death:

The gun industry has poured an estimated $10 million into its defense, and the National Rifle Association's lobbying arm has convinced legislatures in 31 states, including Michigan, to grant the industry immunity against such suits.

Nine of the 24 lawsuits filed since 1998 have been dismissed. Detroit's suit and a $400-million suit brought by Wayne Countyare before the Michigan Court of Appeals.A California case is to be the first to reach trial in April.

Congress is expected to consider a federal immunity law soon. Such a law could affect pending lawsuits.

The much-publicized White House deal announced in 2000 with Smith & Wesson is just a memory. Within two weeks of President Bill Clinton's victorious news conference, Smith & Wesson reneged on the deal.
"The mistake was to assume the firearms industry would capitulate quickly and settle. That didn't happen," said Jeff Reh, an attorney for Beretta USA, a manufacturer named in some of the suits. "For the firearms industry to give up would mean basically we'd go out of business."

But attorneys for the jurisdictions and gun-control advocates say the gun industry faces precedent-setting challenges from the remaining lawsuits -- a threat they say the industry is trying to avert by lobbying for the federal immunity law.

"The gun industry would like people to think they're batting 1.000," said Matt Nosanchuk, litigation director for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., group that is assisting the municipalities. "That's clearly wrong. They have suffered some setbacks, as have the plaintiffs."

A legal precedent
The idea of using litigation as a public health tool was not a novel one. Cities used a recent $246-billion settlement from the tobacco industry to 50 states as a model to craft their cases against the gun industry.

Manufacturers, the cities said, supply more guns in some areas than could lawfully be used, pass them on to distributors and dealers and "basically shut their eyes after that," said Jon Vernick, codirector of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The Justice Department estimates that 30 million loaded, unlocked guns are stockpiled in U.S. homes. And with reasonable care, a gun can last 100 years or more.

"The cities are arguing they must know that some of this oversupply will end up in the hands of the unlawful market," Vernick said.

They said they have been left to pay for the carnage the industry promotes, including violent crime, depressed housing values and medical and police services.

The Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that nationwide, the annual financial costs of gun violence at $1.4 billion to $4 billion -- with another $19 billion in indirect costs, such as loss of productivity.

In 1997, rapes, robberies and killings committed with guns cost Detroiters an estimated $850 million,according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.

Some of the suits accuse gun makers of creating advertising designed to appeal to criminals. For instance, Navegar,a Miami-based maker of semiautomatic assault pistols, once advertised that its gun had a fingerprint-resistant finish, saying gun owners don't like their guns to be "messy and spotted," Vernick said. Gun-control advocates want built-in safety mechanisms, instead of trigger locks that they say many people don't use, and implementation of so-called smart-gun technology, which allows a gun to recognize its owner's fingerprints or voice.

"The American people need to understand that all we're asking in these lawsuits is for the gun industry to take responsibility for what it does," said Nosanchuk. "Not to take responsibility for what a shooter does. But to take responsibility for what it does."

A call for limits
Weusi Olusola would like that.

In 1986, on what would be the last day he'd be able to walk,the 16-year-old basketball star at Murray-Wright High School in Detroit was standing in front of a friend's home when a group of men began shooting at the house. An 8-year-old girl was killed and a 6-year-old girl was injured.

Olusola, whose name then was Willie Brown, was struck by four bullets, leaving him a paraplegic.

While he sees the need to tighten enforcement of existing laws -- "Right now, anybody can still get a gun," he said -- Olusola wants gun makers to limit the number of guns they make.

"The more weapons, the more violence, the more death," said Olusola, who changed his name in 1996. "The people would have to kill you a different way if they didn't have a damn gun.

"Maybe our young people would go back" to "fighting with their fists again."

An armed tradition
From its inception, America has loved guns. They helped defeat the British, feed families and protect homesteads.

They were deemed so needed that the founding fathers provided for the right to bear them in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, though the meaning of individual rights to carry guns is a matter of debate.

The products of Smith & Wesson and Colt -- two manufacturers now named in the lawsuits -- were beloved in Western lore and are still admired among collectors. A love of hunting can be as much about enjoying nature as hunting prey.

"It's good solitude; it's peace and quiet," said Robert Blevins, 58, whose father taught him to hunt as a teen.

In line with the tradition, pictures of noble hunting dogs retrieving prey grace several walls at the Beretta USA manufacturing plant in Accokeek, Md. The Italian-owned company produces hunting rifles and handguns used by 200 police departments in the United States and Canada.

"We make guns to enable people to save their lives," said Beretta's Reh, a founding member of the Firearms Litigation Support Committee, a group of industry lawyers. "And our products function as intended. They do what they're supposed to do."

Reh and others said guns with owner voice or fingerprint identification are technologically not ready and have little consumer demand. And they point to their safety efforts, including free trigger locks and gun-safety programs for children.

But they insist they are not responsible for -- nor can they stop -- the illegal use of handguns.

"You can't sue the manufacturer of a firearm, any more than you can sue Budweiser when someone gets involved in a drunk-driving accident," said Larry Keane, attorney for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the producers, retailers and distributors named in the suits. Those on both sides say that virtually every gun that ends up in the hand of a criminal was initially purchased in a legal sale.Roughly a half-million guns are stolen from homes every year, according to the Justice Department.

Violent crime doesn't negate the fact that Americans have a right to bear arms, said Richard Poe, author of "The Seven Myths of Gun Control." "You can't take that away because a lot of people are being shot in Detroit," he said.

The industry accuses municipalities of trying to skirt the Constitution.

"They're attempting to regulate social conduct by focusing on the means that are used in the crime," said Joseph Tartaro, president of the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights group. The foundation sued the mayors of 23 cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1998 in federal court, claiming collusion to bankrupt the gun industry. The case was dismissed.

Federal oversight
But guns, like tobacco, are exempt from federal health and safety requirements and are instead overseen by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. States and cities can also add rules, such as registration for gun owners, which are not required by federal law.

The bureau has 500 inspectors, all with duties within the alcohol and tobacco divisions as well.

"Basicially, we've got 200 people to regulate an industry of 104,000," said ATF spokesman Jim Crandall, citing the number of U.S. gun distributors and dealers.

Civilian buyers, who must be 21 years old, must register their gun with the dealer. Felons and some others are prohibited from buying handguns. But gun purchases between individuals are not regulated, Crandall said. Nor are guns sold at gun shows.

"If I've got cash and you've got a gun, there's no record of it," he said. "Congress did not want to interfere with the gun rights of private citizens."

Eyes on California
Now, both sides wait for April 25, when the California trial is to start.

The trial consolidates cases brought by 12 California cities and counties in 1999. The municipalities claim gun makers, distributors and trade associations supplied firearms to an illegitimate market and failed to provide warnings and safety features.

"That is clearly the most significant legal challenge the gun industry has ever faced," said Dennis Henigan, legal director for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C. The center is representing the municipalities in the suits. The legal battle, he said, "raises fundamental challenges to the way guns have been distributed in this country."

But industry spokesmen said you only have to look at Boston to see what will happen. Boston spent $30,000 monthly preparing for trial, combed through the industry's confidential documents outlining their business practices, yet found no smoking gun to prove its case.

Gun makers say the drop in gun crimes in recent years will make the cities' cases more difficult. For two years, not a single child under 17 was killed with a gun in Boston.

Still, Henigan says his side's efforts are paying off.

Seven gun makers are selling guns with internal locking systems. Colt agreed to stop making seven of its handgun models and increase efforts to develop smart-gun technology.

Manufacturers have poured millions of dollars into firearm safety education for children and provide trigger locks to customers, though studies show many owners don't use them.

"We are beginning to see signs that the industry is reforming itself in response to the lawsuits," said Henigan. "I believe that these lawsuits have already saved lives." But Olusola said he can't tell.

He visits schools and recreation centers in Detroit with others who were injured by gun violence, telling his story, talking to children about the dangers of guns.

And he could buy a gun on almost any corner en route, he said.

"They seem easier to get now than ever."

Contact RUBY L. BAILEY at 202-383-6036 or bailey@freepress.com.

All content © copyright 2003 Detroit Free Press and may not be republished without permission.

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January 3, 2003, 12:34 PM
The much-publicized White House deal announced in 2000 with Smith & Wesson is just a memory. Within two weeks of President Bill Clinton's victorious news conference, Smith & Wesson reneged on the deal.


Dennis Olson
January 3, 2003, 01:04 PM
Yeah Teee, I didn't notice them doing that either. I seem to remember a months-long boycott, ultimately forcing Slick & Weasel to be sold. Rewriting history already..... (GAG)

January 3, 2003, 02:04 PM
Sounds like selective librral interpretation of the facts.:fire:

January 3, 2003, 02:17 PM
Sick how they turn things around

Master Blaster
January 3, 2003, 02:36 PM
Seven gun makers are selling guns with internal locking systems. Colt agreed to stop making seven of its handgun models and increase efforts to develop smart-gun technology.

HUH which 7 was that???????????????

When did Colt agree and with whom was the agreement?

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