Courts Reject Lawsuits Against Gun Makers

More than two dozen cities and counties have filed suit against the firearms industry for law enforcement and public health expenses those localities say they incur from gun injuries and deaths. Court after court, including the U.S. Supreme Court and three state Supreme Courts, have rejected these lawsuits. Spearheaded by the anti-gun lobby, the suits are intended to circumvent Congress and state legislatures—all of which have rejected handgun prohibition legislation—by attempting to achieve handgun prohibition through the courts.

There are basically two claims used by the localities that have filed suit. Their "public nuisance" claims allege that manufacturers have created a public nuisance by flooding the market, in areas with less-restrictive gun control laws, so that the criminals in other areas can gain access to guns. This theory is severely flawed on several counts, chief among them the belief that gun control laws prevent crime and that, somehow, criminals will obey such laws. It's also ridiculous to believe that the gun industry wants to supply guns to the criminal element.

Other suits allege that the manufacturers have been negligent because they have not developed a "smart" gun which can be fired only by its owner. The plaintiffs conveniently ignore the fact that the technology they demand has yet to become practical. In a National Review article (Dec. 21, 1998), Prof. John R. Lott, Jr. wrote: "The futuristic guns advocated in the New Orleans suit . . . are far from reliable and will cost $900 when they are finally available." That cost, he said, "will fall far more heavily on law-abiding citizens than on criminals, decreasing the number of innocent people who could use guns to protect themselves." Even if so-called "smart" guns prevented some accidental gun deaths, they would do so at what price? How many more lives might be lost because mandating such technology diminishes the ability of less affluent citizens to defend themselves and their families?

In all these suits the plaintiffs seek to wipe out centuries-old tort law principle. In product liability cases, plaintiffs traditionally have been able to sue for compensation for injuries because: 1) a product was defective, 2) the defect posed an unreasonable danger to the user, and 3) the defect caused the injury. A "defective" product is one that doesn't operate as a reasonable manufacturer would design and make it, as a reasonable consumer would expect, or as other products of its type. Courts uniformly have held that a defect must exist in the product at the time it was sold, and that a plaintiff's injury must have been the result of that defect. Defendants can't be held liable for injuries that occur only because a properly operating product is criminally or negligently misused.

Recognizing that the real intent of anti-gun politicians and their lawyers is to bankrupt a lawful industry with exorbitant legal expenses, state legislatures across the nation are reacting by prohibiting localities from filing these suits.

Since the first suit was introduced, 27 states have enacted NRA-backed legislation that does just that (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming), and other states have pending legislation.

While anti-gun organizations, including the American Bar Association, have used crime victims to create these lawsuits in order to further their political agenda, courts in numerous states have made it clear that these cases have no basis in law.

On Oct. 7, 1999, Ohio Judge Robert Ruehlman dismissed with prejudice Cincinnati's suit, calling it "an improper attempt to have this court substitute its judgment for that of the legislature, something which this court is neither inclined nor empowered to do."

On December 10, 1999, Superior Court Judge Robert F. McWeeny threw out the city of Bridgeport's suit, writing: "[T]he court finds as a matter of law that the plaintiffs lack standing to litigate these claims; thus, the court is without jurisdiction to hear this case."

On December 13, 1999 Florida Circuit Judge Amy Dean dismissed Miami-Dade County's lawsuit against the industry with a similar decision, stating that: "Public nuisance does not apply to the design, manufacture, and distribution of a lawful product."

Recently, two state supreme courts ruled against frivolous lawsuits:

On April 3, 2001, the Louisiana Supreme Court voted 5-2 to dismiss the City of New Orleans suit, the first of its kind to be filed, upholding the state law which forbids municipalities in Louisiana from bringing these types of suits. (In October, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Louisiana court's decision to stand, by refusing to review the case on appeal.)

On August 6, 2001, the California Supreme Court issued a 5-1 ruling that gun manufacturers cannot be held responsible when their products are used to commit crimes. The Court decision referred to a 1983 California law prohibiting this type of lawsuit. On October 1, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld a ruling that dismissed Bridgeport’s suit in 1999 because the city lacked "...any statutory authorization to" of liability against the firearms industry. After the rejection of the New Orleans suit, Bridgeport's Mayor Joseph Ganim told the Associated Press an appeal of his city’s suit to the U.S. Supreme Court was, "probably not a likely route for us" and "It's not likely we’re in a very strong position."

Kevin Bowler
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