Effort to cap liability suits worries anti-gun groups Senate bill to protect small businesses may shield firearms firms

July 07, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With gun control a dead letter in Congress, anti-gun activists have increasingly turned to the courts to foil firearms manufacturers and sellers and have made halting strides toward holding the industry liable for its sometimes-deadly product.

But a liability bill before the Senate this week could slam that door shut, gun control advocates fear. Republicans and Democrats have struck a compromise on legislation designed to protect businesses -- especially small businesses -- from liability lawsuits that cost companies billions of dollars a year.

By passing the measure, Congress may unwittingly shield some of the most notorious gun companies, where as few as 10 employees can churn out tens of thousands of cheap "Saturday night special" handguns a year. In Maryland alone, 10 percent of the guns traced to crime scenes in 1995 and 1996 were made by small companies that would be protected from punitive damages by the bill, according to the Violence Policy Center, a gun control group.

"The civil justice system serves as the only form of regulation on the gun industry," said Kristen Rand, the center's director of federal policy. "Once that's diluted, it will serve the gun industry."

Search for compromise

For nearly two decades, Congress has tried to find a compromise on legislation to bring under control an American legal system that critics label "jackpot justice."

This year's gambit is deliberately modest. A bill hammered out by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat, Sen. Slade Gorton, a Washington state Republican, and the White House would cap punitive damages for small businesses at $250,000, limit the liability of product sellers and offer some protection for any corporation that offers adequate instructions or warnings for its products.

The Senate plans to take up the bill this week.

"While the reforms are more modest than some of us would have liked, the bill represents an incremental step toward reforming the current judicial lottery system," Gorton said last month.

Gun industry officials have been similarly understated.

"The bill that Rockefeller and the administration were able to agree on was quite frankly so watered down that it's almost beside the point," said James Baker, a lobbyist for the Sporting Arms and Manufacturers Institute.

Setback to lawsuits

But to gun control advocates, the bill could represent an enormous setback if it blocks the path to the courthouse. Taking a page from anti-tobacco forces, they have filed a barrage of lawsuits against gun makers and dealers.

In May, the parents of three children who were killed in gun violence sued three gun makers for damages, contending that the marketing of guns with "high-volume firepower" and "fingerprint resistance" amounted to a direct appeal to criminal buyers.

The mayors of Philadelphia and Chicago are pursuing legal action against the makers, marketers and sellers of firearms.

A New York case against gun manufacturers and dealers is expected to go to trial this fall.

The families of two people who were killed in the schoolyard massacre in Jonesboro, Ark., are preparing action against a gun manufacturer for failing to include a trigger lock.

Failure of legal action

Even when gun control advocates lose in court, their suits take a toll on an industry that must constantly fight off legal challenges and pass lawyers' fees on to its customers.

Indeed, for every success gun control activists have had in court, there have been far more failures.

Only one case has gone against the gun industry and survived appeal -- the 1985 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals that victims of crimes committed with Saturday night specials could sue manufacturers and dealers for damages. But that decision was overturned three years later by legislative fiat as part of the Maryland legislature's landmark law effectively outlawing such handguns in the state.

"We don't really know which way these suits are likely to go," said Jon Vernick, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, who favors gun control.

But if the new liability bill passes, he said, there is little doubt the next legal battles will be won by the gun industry.

By shielding many Saturday night special manufacturers from windfall judgments, Congress would remove a major incentive for manufacturers to change marketing practices or to install advanced features.

Overblown fears?

Other provisions would protect all manufacturers, not just companies with fewer than 25 employees and annual sales of less than $5 million. One such provision would offer liability protections for companies if a product was used contrary to the warnings or instructions of the manufacturer. A gun maker could be shielded from legal action, Vernick said, simply by telling buyers to keep their guns locked up and instructing customers not to point their guns at anyone or anything they do not intend to shoot.

Tamera Luzzatto, Rockefeller's chief of staff, calls such fears overblown.

"You can spin almost any scenario out of any issue," she said, "but as far as I'm concerned, we are completely satisfied there is no gun issue here."

Pub Date: 7/07/98

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