Suing Gun Makers Won’t Stop Gun Violence

Published December 1, 2003

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley recently joined officials from New York and Los Angeles in urging the U.S. Senate to reject a bill banning lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

The legislation, Senate Bill 659, is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It prohibits the filing in both state and federal court of lawsuits that seek damages from gun manufacturers for harms resulting from the use of handguns by violent criminals. The bill also would require the dismissal of civil actions, such as the City of Chicago’s $433 million suit against 18 gun manufacturers, four firearms distributors, and 11 firearms dealers.

Such cases have not fared well in the courts. Similar suits brought by New Orleans; Miami-Dade County, Florida; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Atlanta; Detroit; Cincinnati; Camden County, New Jersey; Camden, New Jersey; Wilmington, Delaware; Philadelphia; Boston; and New York State have all been dismissed. The Chicago case is pending in the Illinois Supreme Court, which will decide whether manufacturers whose guns are sold lawfully nevertheless have civil liability for damages caused by gun misuse by criminals.

Troubling Issues

There is no doubt the proposed federal legislation presents troubling legal issues: whether the federal government has constitutional authority to prohibit plaintiffs from accessing state courts, for example, and whether there is a constitutional basis for such federal legislation even as to federal courts. But equally troubling issues are posed by the City’s anti-gun manufacturer suit.

The coupling of the substantial power of municipal entities with the financial resources of billionaire trial lawyers working on contingent fees constitutes an attempt to destroy or cripple an industry selling a lawful product. This slope is already slippery due to the tobacco litigation.

And it could become slipperier. As an Ohio judge wrote in dismissing Cincinnati’s gun suit in 2000, “Were we to decide otherwise, we would open a Pandora’s box. The city could sue the manufacturers of matches for arson, or automobile manufacturers for traffic accidents, or breweries for drunken driving.”

Limiting gun sales made by lawful sources does not keep guns out of the hands of criminals. The Heartland Institute examined this issue, among others, in a 1995 study, “Taking Aim at Gun Control.” The authors–a professor of law and an economist–found “only 7 percent of criminals’ handguns are obtained from legitimate retail sources. … Three-fourths of felons surveyed report they would have no trouble obtaining a gun when they were released, despite legal prohibitions against firearms ownership by convicted felons.”

Municipal resources are squandered when they are devoted to actions against a lawful industry rather than prosecution of criminals under laws already on the books. According to the Heartland study, there are approximately 20,000 federal, state, and local firearms laws in force nationwide. In Illinois, for example, carrying a loaded handgun in a vehicle is a felony; possession of a handgun by a minor is a Class A misdemeanor; and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon is a Class 3 felony.

Violating the Rights of Law-Abiding Citizens

Crippling the gun industry will limit the availability of guns to law-abiding citizens, depriving them of the ability to defend themselves. There is only a single officer on patrol for every 3,300 people. Law-abiding adults use guns for self-protection some 2.5 million times every year. Each year, potential victims defend themselves by killing between 2,000 and 3,000 criminals and wounding an additional 9,000 to 17,000.

Robert A. Levy, a policy analyst for the Cato Institute, wrote recently, “Violence in America is due not to the availability of guns but to social pathologies–illegitimacy, dysfunctional schools, and drug and alcohol abuse. Historically, more gun laws have gone hand in hand with an explosion of violent crime. Only during the past decade–with vigorous law enforcement, a booming economy, and an older population–have we seen dramatic reductions in violence, coupled with a record number of guns in circulation.”

Maureen Martin is an attorney and writer. She recently submitted, on behalf of The Heartland Institute, an amicus brief in Parker v. the District of Columbia, a lawsuit that addresses the right of individuals to own guns.