Officials of 13 cities meet, consider suing gun makers Joint action proposed as way to recover costs of violence

December 11, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- Firing back at the urban plague of gun violence, lawyers and mayors from 13 U.S. cities held a first-of-its kind summit here yesterday to plot strategy for what promises to be a joint legal assault against America's firearms manufacturers.

The afternoon meeting, over plates of chicken and rice at a 911 communications center on Chicago's West Side, came at the urging of the mayors of New Orleans and Chicago, which last month became the first two cities to file lawsuits against gun makers.

During yesterday's three-hour session, Marc Morial of New Orleans and Richard M. Daley of Chicago repeatedly urged their counterparts to try to recover in court the police, emergency and health care costs associated with gun violence.

Several who attended the meeting, convened by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, quickly complied. By the end of the session, officials from three cities -- Atlanta, Miami-Dade County and San Francisco -- told The Sun that by early next year they would file suits.

Mayor Joseph P. Ganim of Bridgeport, Conn., said his city's suit, only the third ever, could be filed as early as today.

"Suddenly, it seems like everyone is in favor of moving forward against the gun industry," said San Francisco city attorney Louise H. Renne.

"And we are eager in San Francisco to coordinate our litigation with other cities. This is an idea whose time has truly come."

The unity and optimism of the cities stood in sharp contrast to statements from the gun industry, which is badly divided.

Jack Adkins, a vice president of the American Shooting Sports Council, a Georgia-based trade association, says gun makers have been unable to reach any agreement on how they will defend themselves in the New Orleans and Chicago cases.

Rather than save money and focus attention by jointly hiring counsel, most manufacturers, including Maryland-based Beretta, prefer to use their own lawyers.

Adkins says the nature of the gun industry -- which is dominated by small, family-owned firms -- makes such disagreements especially dangerous for manufacturers.

The industry, with about $2 billion in annual revenues, does not have the resources for a tobacco-sized settlement, and members lack the funds to fight suits in dozens of cities simultaneously.

Chicago's suit alone asks for $433 million in damages.

"There are some issues common to all, and some which are divergent," says Beretta general counsel Jeff Reh, who says the cities are "wasting municipal funds" with their suits.

"For that reason, Beretta has its own counsel in these cases."

If cities moved forward with a coordinated attack, Adkins says, smaller companies would fold and larger firms might stop making handguns altogether.

"We realize now that a lot of cities are going to file these suits, and we don't have cooperation on our side," said Adkins. "It remains to be seen what individual companies are going to do."

Industry has yet to lose

In recent years, several crime victims have filed suits against gun manufacturers. But to this day, no gun maker has had to pay damages in a lawsuit deriving from the criminal use of firearms.

Still, officials at yesterday's meeting were unbowed. Several compared the session to the early gatherings of the state attorneys general who went on to win settlements from Big Tobacco.

Wendell H. Gauthier, a wealthy and ribald anti-tobacco lawyer who is handling New Orleans' gun lawsuit, attended yesterday's meeting and predicted victory.

He referred to gun makers as "these rascals" and said public pressure would force the industry to make guns safer once cities' lawyers expose the business practices of industry executives.

"We are a bad dream for the gun industry," said Gauthier, who chairs a consortium of lawyers who put up $100,000 each to help finance tobacco lawsuits.

"We're gonna win this thing. I guarantee it."

Gauthier is so confident that he pledged to help any city that wants to sue.

Representatives from Minneapolis; St. Louis; Tampa, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; and Gary, Ind., said they were considering his offer.

Baltimore officials did not attend yesterday's meeting. But city lawyers are studying the possibility of litigation.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said last month that he would like to file JTC suit, but only if lawyers conclude that the chances of winning and the potential costs of losing are reasonable.

City officials in Philadelphia, New York and Boston have expressed similar views.

Representatives of each city in attendance yesterday pledged to share any legal research with others.

And there was considerable discussion about organizing a massive filing of lawsuits by dozens of cities on the same day in 1999.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors said such attempts at coordination would be worked out at the conference's meeting next month in Washington.

Differing legal approaches

Less clear is what legal arguments cities will make.

In the New Orleans suit, the city argues that gun makers were negligent for not installing safety devices.

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