2 suits target gun firms

Baltimore mothers sue after accidental shootings of sons

Argument over safety

Claim is that weapon lacking child-resistant features is defective

July 02, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Launching a local front in the national legal assault against firearms manufacturers, two city mothers filed a pair of potentially groundbreaking lawsuits in Baltimore City Circuit Court yesterday, blaming two large handgun makers for the accidental shootings of their young sons.

Comparing guns to medicine that should be kept away from babies, the lawsuits argue that Sturm, Ruger & Co. of Connecticut and Lorcin Engineering Co. of Southern California are responsible for the self-inflicted shootings because they failed to make their weapons -- like America's aspirin bottles -- child proof.

That narrowly drawn legal claim, experts say, is one of the first in the country to argue that any gun without specific child-resistant safety features is, by definition, defective.

Any number of such devices -- from simple mechanical locks to high-tech personalized gun technology -- would have prevented the plaintiffs' accidents, the lawsuits say.

Nino Jacobs, a Park Heights 8-year-old, shot himself under the left eye with a Lorcin semiautomatic L-380 pistol in August 1997, and Jordan Garris, an East Baltimore 3-year-old, died last month after firing a Ruger semiautomatic P89 into the right side of his head.

While the suits name only two manufacturers and one local dealer, they make broad claims against the gun industry, which has called such safety devices too technologically advanced.

To illustrate his point, Andrew D. Freeman, a lawyer for both families stood on an East Baltimore corner yesterday afternoon and held aloft an 1894 Smith & Wesson revolver that cannot be fired unless an adult squeezes its grip.

Freeman said his 8-year-old daughter tried but couldn't squeeze hard enough to fire.

"This is something that manufacturers knew how to do 100 years ago, but now they don't," said Freeman, a civil rights lawyer who has never before handled a gun case.

"The industry could make guns child proof. What amazes me is that guns have avoided consumer protection, and lawsuits like this, for so long."

The lawsuits ask for $6 million and $1.25 million in damages, respectively, but interviews and the complaints indicate that the plaintiffs' goals are more political than financial.

Lawsuits against the gun industry have almost always failed to collect damages. But Freeman and one of his clients said they hoped their underdog claim, combined with a wave of lawsuits filed by several municipalities, will help force manufacturers to change their practices.

Gun-control groups, including Handgun Control Inc., have eagerly provided Freeman with advice, but not money.

So far, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has declined to follow the lead of other cities in suing manufacturers. But the city is looking for lawyers who might undertake a case, and Freeman's lawsuits could prove something of a legal audition if the city, perhaps under a new mayor, decides to sue.

Suit called cutting edge

"The lawsuit is cutting edge because of the specific nature of the claim and the fact that the children are very young," said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence in Washington. "There's no way for the industry to blame the victim with this one."

Gun industry leaders said they will aggressively challenge the Baltimore suits by targeting the parents for having unlocked, loaded semiautomatic pistols within reach of the two young boys.

Lawyers for the two companies were already digging for details on Freeman yesterday.

Jim Waldorf, Lorcin's owner, said by phone from Nevada that his company would file a cross complaint against Jacobs' mother, Veronica Stevenson, alleging she was negligent in her son's shooting.

The gun makers may be helped by Baltimore law, which requires parents to keep their weapons unloaded and locked away. Neither parent has been charged under the law, a police spokesman said.

Both companies said they already take safety precautions, selling guns with locks and distributing warnings that guns should always be kept locked away and unloaded.

Warning on the box

All Lorcin guns, said Waldorf, are sold in a box that says, "Do not use this gun until instructed in safe handling by a competent firearms instructor. All guns can be dangerous if improperly used."

"The anti-gun groups are scouring the Internet for tragedies and coming at us from everywhere and this is part of it," said Waldorf, who in 1988 started Lorcin -- one of the so-called "Ring of Fire" companies known for making inexpensive handguns. "We will do everything we can to beat it."

Waldorf said he felt terrible about the young victims, but thought the lawsuits were unfair.

The incidents are similar. Nino Jacobs, who was 6 then, shot himself with a gun a friend had hidden -- his family says they didn't know the weapon was in the house -- under his sister's mattress. After surgery and a long hospital day, the boy survived and is now well, giving his mother all she can handle.

Jordan Garris was not so lucky.

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