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Politics and Economy:
The Gun Debate
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Gun Laws and Lawsuits Overview

For the past few years a number of American states, cities, municipalities, and individuals have filed lawsuits against gun makers and distributors, holding the makers in some part responsible for violence in their communities. Two years ago NOW profiled former gun industry insider Robert Ricker, who has been a star witness for the plaintiffs in many of these cases. Ricker had been one of the gun industry's most powerful lobbyists.

President Bush recently signed a bill into law that may effectively indemnify the gun industry against current and future lawsuits. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act ( Public Law No: 109-92) was generated in response to a growing number of lawsuits filed against the gun industry which "seek money damages and other relief for the harm caused by the misuse of firearms by third parties, including criminals."

These suits are filed on a number of grounds. Some contend that guns are a public nuisance. Others charge the industry with "negligent distribution" saying gun manufacturers knowingly send city dealers more guns than they expect to sell to law-abiding citizens, or do not do enough to track guns bought through straw purchasers. Other suits are based in consumer and product liability law. In some cases, gun manufacturers are alleged to have stalled development of safety devices like the trigger lock or of negligent design or adequate "failure to warn" consumers.

The "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" was designed:

To prohibit civil liability actions from being brought or continued against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or importers of firearms or ammunition for damages resulting from the misuse of their products by others.
Proponents of the bill, like the National Rifle Association, say it guards lawful commerce against "reckless lawsuits." Opponents, like the Center for Handgun Violence's Sarah Brady say it is an attack on the legal rights of gun violence victims. The bill itself is based on the following assumptions:
  • Citizen's 2nd Amendment Right to Bear Arms
  • The contention that the industry is already sufficiently controlled by legislation. (Gun Control Act of 1968, the National Firearms Act, and the Arms Export Control Act.)
  • Liability lawsuits would impose "unreasonable burdens on interstate and foreign commerce."
  • Tort reform "imposing liability on an entire industry for harm that is solely caused by others is an abuse of the legal system."
  • No precedence in common law. An expansion of "civil liability in a manner never contemplated by the Framers of the Constitution."
The effect of the new immunity bill on cases in which the gun industry is the defendant is uncertain. The first of these cases scheduled to go to trial is the lawsuit brought by New York City against the gun industry. The suit charges the gun industry with contributing to a public nuisance in New York City by selling guns through retail dealers who facilitate trafficking of guns into the illegal market. The City Of New York, v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp. , et al., faced dismissal under the new immunity law. However, on December 2, 2005, a Judge ruled the case will go to trial. Robert ricker is expected to be one of the witnesses.

Even before the bill became law some gun industry cases had been dismissed. In late July 2003 Federal judge Jack B. Weinstein of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed the NAACP's case against the gun industry. Judge Weinstein was ruling on the previous findings of an advisory jury. In May of 2003 that jury did not find cause to pursue the case on the grounds that the NAACP had not sufficiently shown that the defendants had created a public nuisance in New York or harmed the NAACP or its New York members. The Hunting & Shooting Sports Heritage Foundation hailed the decision as a major victory.

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