City weighs suit against gun-makers Baltimore would join Chicago, New Orleans in bid to recoup costs

November 13, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday he is exploring a lawsuit against America's firearms manufacturers, a move that would add Baltimore to a platoon of cities targeting gun-makers for the police, emergency and court costs resulting from gun violence.

Yesterday, lawyers for the city of Chicago filed a $433 million lawsuit against gun companies, alleging they are intentionally saturating the city with more handguns than they can reasonably expect to sell to law-abiding citizens.

Two weeks ago, New Orleans filed the nation's first lawsuit by a government against the industry, accusing gun manufacturers of failing to include adequate safety features.

Schmoke said he has asked City Solicitor Otho M. Thompson to study these legal theories with an eye toward filing a similar lawsuit here.

"If there are huge legal impediments, I don't want to waste a lot of money with a lawsuit," Schmoke said. "But if there looks to be a meaningful chance of success, I would be very interested in going forward."

In addition to Baltimore, officials in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami-Dade County say they might take gun-makers to court.

"Cities are subsidizing the gun industry, this big herd of rhinoceri, by paying for the damage done by their product," New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial said in an interview last week. "I know this lawsuit is new, but violence is so rampant in our city that a mayor has to use every avenue, every angle, to fight guns."

Schmoke said he had reviewed the New Orleans suit, copies of which he received from Morial and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who is encouraging colleagues around the country to file suits.

The mounting gun litigation borrows some arguments from the legal attack by the states against the tobacco industry.

In New Orleans, Morial has hired Wendell H. Gauthier, a prominent anti-tobacco attorney, to handle the gun suit, which names 15 companies, three industry trade groups and several Louisiana gun dealers as defendants.

"Obviously, the dam is broken, and the tidal wave of lawsuits is coming," says Jack Adkins, operations director for the Georgia-based American Shooting Sports Council, a defendant in the New Orleans case.

"This is litigation tyranny, with mayors thwarting the democratic legislation process by going to the courts to establish public policy."

Adkins says comparisons between guns and tobacco are flawed. While cigarettes cause death when used correctly, guns -- deployed safely in hunting or target shooting -- pose no harm, he says.

And while tobacco companies are publicly traded, most gun companies are smaller, privately held businesses that lack the resources to fight a national legal battle on many fronts. He predicted some companies would declare bankruptcy if more cities sue.

"Even if we win the suits, the expense of fighting means we lose," said Adkins. "This could very well mean the end of the domestic handgun industry in this country."

But legal experts suggest the threat to the industry might be exaggerated. Although each city's target -- gun-makers -- is the same, the arguments being used follow two distinct legal theories. Both are unproved.

In New Orleans -- a city of 445,000 that, like Baltimore, is so cash-strapped it closes its library Fridays -- lawyers are pursuing a claim under Louisiana's liberal product-liability law.

The lawsuit argues that guns are defective not because of a structural problem but because of what they lack: safety features, from written instructions to automated "smart-gun" technologies that allow a handgun to be fired only by its owner.

As damages, the New Orleans suit seeks not only police and medical costs, but the lost income-tax revenue that would have been paid by maimed or dead shooting victims.

Based on national estimates, the cost of treating one child wounded by gunfire is $14,000, the suit says, and the total cost to a city of a gun-related crime is, on average, $268,000.

Gun-control advocates, quick to praise New Orleans publicly for bringing suit, privately express serious reservations about the lawsuit. In dozens of cases filed against the gun industry by individual shooting victims, courts have yet to award damages for a product-liability claim.

"Product-liability claims don't work because guns work as intended: They shoot things," says Ronald McPheron, a Chicago lawyer who has sued gun-makers.

Kristen Rand, policy director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, says the New Orleans suit is important as a symbol. But she dismisses much of the legal argument as "completely untenable."

"The [smart-gun] technology is so speculative that it doesn't make any sense to say the gun industry should have installed it," Rand said.

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