NAACP plans to sue gun-makers

Group calls industry negligent, wants it held accountable for crime

Filing expected this week

Goal is for measures to be adopted curbing handgun distribution

July 12, 1999|By Erin Texeira and Joe Mathews | Erin Texeira and Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Joining a nationwide legal assault intended to strictly limit how guns are sold in America, the NAACP will announce today plans to file a federal lawsuit accusing dozens of handgun manufacturers and distributors of negligence.

The lawsuit, which the NAACP expects to file in a Brooklyn, N.Y., court this week, would put the full force of the country's oldest and largest civil rights group behind a move to hold the gun industry accountable for crime.

The suit follows the lead of 23 cities and counties -- including Chicago, San Francisco and Miami-Dade -- that have taken the gun industry to court.

But unlike the localities' suits, which seek to recover police and medical costs associated with gun violence, the NAACP's civil action will not ask for monetary damages.

The complaint seeks to force gun-makers to adopt measures they have resisted -- such as prohibitions on gun-show sales, said Denise Dunleavy, a lawyer with the New York-based firm Weitz & Luxenberg, which is handling the case for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"This is absolutely precedent-setting in that we're asking the courts to do what the American people want to have done and that Congress has been prevented from doing" by the gun lobby, Dunleavy said.

"This will make gun manufacturers all accountable," she said.

The suit would argue that NAACP members have suffered disproportionately because of gun violence. While gun-related crime has dropped dramatically in recent years for the nation, African-American victims -- particularly young men -- have seen virtually no changes in such crime.

Homicide was the leading cause of death in blacks ages 15 to 17 -- and 78 percent of those deaths involved guns -- said Elisa Barnes, a private practice attorney in Greenwich Village who is co-counsel in the case, noting a study by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"Every demographic except ours is getting improvements," said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington branch of the NAACP. "Gun violence has been raised as an issue by the NAACP since the days of W. E. B. DuBois. We've had consistent forums to call for good, responsible, sensible and sane gun control."

John C. White, spokesman for the NAACP, confirmed yesterday that Kweisi Mfume, president of the organization, would announce the suit in a speech this morning, the third day of the Baltimore-based NAACP's 90th annual convention here.

Mfume, who has severe laryngitis, nodded vigorously when asked about the lawsuit, but declined to speak about it.

Efforts to reach Robert Delfay, president of the Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, a leading gun industry trade group, yesterday were unsuccessful.

Months of work

Mfume and other NAACP officials have been quietly working on the case for months, according to Shelton. In February, Mfume announced plans at an annual meeting of the organization to pursue legislation against handgun makers -- but did not offer details.

His announcement came 10 days after Dunleavy and Barnes, representing the families of seven shooting victims, won a landmark case in a Brooklyn federal court. While the jury compromise verdict was contradictory and limited, its power came through its novelty: Never had gun manufacturers been held responsible in a case involving the criminal use of a handgun. The decision is being appealed.

That case also rested on an allegation of negligence -- that the gun industry, in its marketing and distribution, saturated areas that have weak gun laws with more weapons than could be sold to lawful customers. The effect of such practices was to supply the underground market.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence who has consulted with Barnes and Dunleavy, said yesterday that the NAACP's case would use a similar claim.

Soon after the Brooklyn verdict, the lawyers began working closely with Mfume and drafted legal papers asking the courts to place specific limits on about 85 handgun manufacturers. Shotguns and rifles will not be targeted in the suit, Dunleavy said.

Limits sought

According to the lawyers, the suit will seek to impose these limits:

Allowing handguns to be sold only in the 16,000 licensed, retail gun shops.

"This means they won't be able to sell guns at a barbershop or a dentist store," Dunleavy said. In New York, 90 percent of handguns used in violent crimes are purchased through unlicensed gun sellers, she said.

Allowing no gun sales at gun shows. Potential gun owners could apply for guns, but sales would be contingent on background checks through licensed gun sellers, Dunleavy said.

Permitting only one gun purchase per month per customer.

Requiring so-called gun trace requests, which are records kept by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to link guns used in crimes to gun manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Requiring such traces would make it easier for officials to pinpoint gun-makers and sellers who provide the weapons most often used in crimes, Barnes said.

Dunleavy said the case would have a sweeping impact on communities most affected by handgun violence.

"This is a real example of litigation for social change," she said.

Said the NAACP's Shelton: "We're breaking new ground on this. We're creating a new level of accountability."

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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