Battle over gun control waged in court, Congress

NAACP suit filed in N.Y. implicates industry in epidemic of violence

April 25, 2003|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

A federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Congress have become the latest battlegrounds in a war that could seal the fate of the beleaguered U.S. gun industry.

Late last month, a trial opened over the lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People against more than 80 gun manufacturers and distributors.

The suit accuses the gun industry of allowing its products to be diverted from the legal market into criminal hands. A resulting epidemic of gun-related violence has caused a disproportionate number of black victims, the NAACP maintains.

The civil rights group is not seeking monetary damages. Instead, it wants sweeping restrictions on the sale and distribution of handguns.

But at the prodding of the National Rifle Association and the gun industry, Congress has been moving to remedy the industry's legal headaches by halting such litigation.

On April 9, by a vote of 285-140, the Republican-controlled House passed legislation that would give gun makers and distributors immunity from most lawsuits. Similar legislation in the Senate has at least 51 sponsors, although 60 votes would be needed to block a filibuster.

With more than 33 lawsuits filed by cities, counties and states during the past five years, the gun industry is reeling from legal bills and the possibility of expensive damage awards.

The industry also has been hit with lawsuits from individual victims or their family members, some of which have already resulted in jury verdict.

On Monday, an Oakland, Calif., jury found a gun maker and its main distributor partially liable for an accidental shooting that left a 7-year-old boy paralyzed. The boy was hit in the chin by a .38-caliber bullet fired from a defective handgun a baby sitter was trying to unload. Damages have not been assessed.

In other notable cases working their way through the court system:

The wife of a bus driver killed in last fall's sniper attacks is suing the manufacturer of the rifle that killed her husband and the Tacoma, Wash., gun shop that sold it.

Two former New Jersey police officers have sued the West Virginia pawnshop that sold the handgun used to shoot them. Both officers were seriously wounded by a convicted felon who was barred from legally purchasing the handgun. This gun and others wound up on the black market after being purchased by a woman with no criminal record who turned them over to an illegal gun trafficker and convicted felon.

Motivation for suit

Kweisi Mfume, the president of the NAACP, said the 1999 lawsuit filed by his organization was motivated by the gun industry's failure to adopt an "enforceable code of ethics" and to act in a "corporately responsible way."

The civil trial opened March 24 before U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein.

Lawrence Keane, general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry trade association, said it was a "flat lie" that the gun industry had any complicity in sales to criminals.

He said that the NAACP is attempting to have an "unelected" judge in Brooklyn dictate how firearms are sold throughout the United States, adding: "This is an unconstitutional attempt to use litigation to rewrite federal law."

At the trial, Howard Andrews, a biostatistics professor at Columbia School of Public Health has testified that from 1979 to 1998, firearms were used in 80 percent of the nation's homicides.

Disproportionate rate

Although African-Americans make up only 12.3 percent of the nation's population, they accounted for nearly half of the firearm deaths during the period - 142,819, he said. Young black males are 10 times more likely to become homicide victims than whites, according to his testimony.

Andrews blamed the crack epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s for the surge in homicides in the black community.

Robert Ricker, a former lawyer for the NRA and former head of a gun industry trade group, testified that the industry has long known that guns were being diverted into a black market where criminals had access to them. He said industry executives failed to take action, saying it was a law enforcement problem.

Keane pointed out that this is the second time in four years that the NAACP's lead attorney, Elisa Barnes, has appeared before Weinstein with a case against the gun industry. In the first case, the plaintiffs won a $4 million verdict, but it was overturned on appeal. Keane said Weinstein should have dismissed the NAACP's case.

He said the lawsuit was "frivolous" yet "dangerous" because it was being heard by an "activist" judge.

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