The NAACP's effort to curb gun-related homicides in black communities suffered a setback yesterday when a federal jury rejected its contention that the gun industry knowingly allowed its products to fall into the hands of criminals.
U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein will make a final determination in the case, tried in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y. After deliberating for five days, the jury cleared 45 gun makers and distributors but was unable to reach a verdict on 23 other defendants.
The verdict followed more than five weeks of testimony in the lawsuit against 68 defendants, including Smith & Wesson Corp., Glock Inc. and other major gun makers and distributors.
The jury found Glock and Colt Manufacturing not liable. It did not reach a decision on Smith & Wesson. The lawsuit alleged that the industry knew that corrupt dealers were supplying guns to criminals in minority communities and did nothing to stop them, resulting in a disproportionate number of homicides involving handguns among blacks.
Lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the defendants have 30 days to submit written arguments interpreting the verdict. Weinstein will then make a final determination.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said he was "disappointed, but not discouraged" by the jury's decision. Mfume said the civil rights group will continue its battle against the gun industry, even if Weinstein fails to rule in its favor.
The NAACP plans to join the fight against federal legislation that would exempt the gun industry from most lawsuits, Mfume said. The legislation recently passed the House and is being considered by the Senate.
Mfume said the suit is about "principle not profit," because the NAACP is not seeking monetary damages. Instead, it wants sweeping restrictions on sales and distribution of handguns.
"I'm tired of attending the funerals of teen-agers killed with handguns," Mfume said, adding that the gun industry has failed to adopt a code of ethics that would cut down on the number of firearms in the streets.
Lawrence Keane, vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the jury had delivered a "common-sense" finding.
"The jury understood that these law-abiding companies had done absolutely nothing to cause a public nuisance in New York or harm the NAACP and its members. The proper thing for this court to do is dismiss the case immediately."
Keane said he was concerned that Weinstein might ignore the findings of the advisory jury and rule against the defendants.
The case marks the second time in four years that the NAACP's lead attorney, Elisa Barnes, has appeared before Weinstein with a case against the industry. In the first, the plaintiffs won a $4 million verdict that was later overturned.
Keane called on the NAACP to work with the National Shooting Sports Foundation to reduce firearm accidents and gun-related homicides.
Mfume said "the NAACP will work with anyone," but questioned the value of working with Keane's group, which is a trade organization, not a gun manufacturer or distributor.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.