New York, Connecticut consider suits against gun manufacturers

`We are on the verge,' says spokesman for one attorney general

February 24, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

At least two states are strongly considering whether to file lawsuits against the nation's leading firearms manufacturers, a move that could bring the same legal firepower to the municipal war against handguns that is leading the fight against cigarettes.

The attorneys general in New York and Connecticut have senior aides working on strategies and draft complaints that would seek to recover many of the medical costs of treating gunshot victims, according to interviews with one attorney general, gun industry sources, and lawyers in both states.

"Clearly, Connecticut has been disastrously affected by gun violence," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has been a leader in the legal fight against tobacco, in a telephone interview this week. "And so we have a number of attorneys actively considering legal action."

Some lawyers and gun-control advocates suggested that Michigan is also considering a lawsuit. But in a letter faxed to The Sun yesterday, that state's newly elected attorney general, Jennifer M. Granholm, wrote, "I have made no plans to sue gun manufacturers."

Of the states considering suits, the newly elected New York attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, appears closer to filing. Spitzer's office has been talking with the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington, a leading proponent of using litigation against the industry. A spokesman for Spitzer confirmed Monday that a decision on whether to file suit will be made in the next few weeks.

"We are on the verge," said Marc E. Violette, Spitzer's spokesman. "Eliot Spitzer does not think the flow of guns into the state from the South is an accident. This is a priority concern of his."

The legal war against gun manufacturers has been waged entirely by municipalities, not the states, which used lawsuits to force the tobacco industry into a $206 billion settlement. During the past four months, five cities -- New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Bridgeport, Conn. -- have filed lawsuits against the industry.

Lawyers and advocates of the gun litigation say the cities' leadership is based on two facts: The harm caused by gun violence is largely concentrated in urban areas, and the gun industry tends to be less popular in politically liberal big cities than in states as a whole.

State attorneys general have expressed skepticism about the chances of winning. But some appear to have been emboldened by a landmark verdict in New York federal court this month. In that case, Hamilton vs. Accu-Tek et al., jurors found gun manufacturers liable for three shootings. Industry lawyers are appealing.

"If it's true that states are going forward, it's a new development," said Wendell Gauthier, a Louisiana lawyer who represents New Orleans in its lawsuit. "I think it's clear now that the gun companies are beatable."

"I don't understand what kind of claim they could hope to make, but I'm hearing that some states want to go forward," says Jack Adkins, vice president of the Atlanta-based American Shooting Sports Council, a gun industry trade group. "It seems that states like Michigan may be racing to beat New York."

The states' effort faces significant political hurdles. New York, Connecticut, and Michigan all have politically ambitious Republican governors who are likely to face strong pressure from the gun industry to short-circuit the suits. Connecticut is home to two of America's largest and most storied gun companies: Colt's Manufacturing Co. Inc. of Hartford, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc. of Southport.

But lawyers said the attorneys general could file suit without the approval of the governor. In New York, Spitzer's spokesman said that the attorney general had spoken with Gov. George E. Pataki, a rumored vice presidential contender next year, about a lawsuit, and that Pataki had expressed support.

Michael McKeon, a spokesman for Pataki, disputed that, saying the attorney general and governor had yet to discuss gun litigation. He declined to comment further.

In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has taken no position on the gun litigation. Carmen Shepard, a deputy attorney general, said the cities' suits are "something that we've been following" in the office, but there is no move toward filing yet.

Lawyers said that two main legal theories -- a "product liability" claim that guns lack safety features, and a "public nuisance" claim that guns are negligently marketed and distributed to criminals -- are under consideration in both states. Granholm, the Michigan attorney general, indicated that if her state were to file, she prefers the public nuisance theory because "guns function as they were designed."

"The theories are pretty much the same" as those being used by the cities, said Dennis A. Henigan, an attorney for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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