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Politics and Economy:
The Insider
More on This Story:
Gun Industry Lawsuits Overview

UPDATE: NAACP Lawsuit Against Gun Industry Dismissed

On April 9, 2003 the House of Representatives voted 285-140 to pass H.R. 1036, a bill that effectively indemnifies the gun industry against current and future lawsuits. Sixty-eight Democrats joined with Republican colleagues to pass the bill. The Senate will now take up the measure, which puts a number of lawsuits filed by American states, cities, municipalities, and individuals against gun makers and distributors in danger of dismissal. NOW's story "The Insider" profiles former gun industry insider Robert Ricker. For almost two decades, Ricker had been one of the gun industry's most powerful lobbyists. He is now speaking out about what he says is the industry's refusal to help shut down the black market trade in guns. Those suing the gun makers consider him their star witness.

H.R. 1036Gun Manufacture and Gun Violence StatisticsCurrent LawsuitsRicker's AffidavitStraw Purchase

H.R. 1036

H.R. 1036 or the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" is on its way to the U.S. Senate. It is 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."
You can read the full text of the House version of H.R. 1036 to further investigate the bill and its implications for all involved parties. You can also track the legislation's passage through the Senate, and check on your own legislator's position on this and other issues by using our Tracking Legislation on the Web feature.

Gun Manufacture and Gun Violence Statistics

Behind the battle over this bill are several sets of statistics. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), gun violence had been dropping over the last two decades but the number of crimes committed with firearms stabilized in the early 2000s. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that:

  • In 2000, 533,470 victims of serious violent crimes (rape and sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) stated that they faced an offender with a firearm.
  • The FBI's Crime in the United States estimated that 66% of the 15,517 murders in 2000 were committed with firearms.
  • According to the 1997 Survey of State Prison Inmates, among those possessing a gun, the source of the gun was from a flea market or gun show for fewer than 2%, a retail store or pawnshop for about 12%, family, friends, a street buy, or an illegal source for 80%.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) also published statistics on its Web site. According to the Annual Firearms Manufacturing and Exportation Report (AFMER), American companies manufactured nearly 3 million firearms in 2001.

Lawsuits Against the Gun Industry

The "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" 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." Indeed, according to THE NEW YORK TIMES, at least 33 lawsuits have been filed against gun makers by cities, states and municipalities since 1998.

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.

In the landmark case filed by New Orleans mayor Mark Morial in 1998, (Morial v. Smith & Wesson Corp) the city sought to recover the costs of the health and policing costs of gun violence from the manufacturers. Other cities followed suit. You can learn more about the legal mechanics of these lawsuits (both plaintiff and defense) from the sites listed below.

UPDATE: One of the cases in which Robert Ricker's testimony was a key element has been dismissed. 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 in late July 2003. 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.

Read Judge Weinstein's decision in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. A.A. Arms Inc.

Robert Ricker's Testimony

When Robert Ricker first took on the role of insider in court in a California case, People v. Arcadia Machine, the publication GUN WEEK described his testimony as "without foundation," but also acknowledged that one of the gun lobby's most influential lawyers described Ricker's testimony as "devastating." A California state judge has since dismissed portions of that lawsuit involving the gun makers, but an appeal is planned. And just this week, Ricker testified in another high-profile lawsuit against the gun makers brought by the NAACP. That case is being heard in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. Use the links below to evaluate the cases.

What is a Straw Purchase?

Ricker's most damaging charges relate to what he says is the gun industry's failure to properly monitor and control gun dealers who have a history of selling guns that end up being used in crimes. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms traces guns that are used in crimes and keeps a database of dealers who sold those guns. The ATF also contacts gun makers whenever they trace a gun recovered at a crime.

How do criminals get guns from dealers? One of the main ways is called a "straw purchase." A "straw purchase" is, quite simply, when someone buys a gun for someone else. The main reason someone would need someone else to buy a gun for them is that the person who really wants the gun can't legally buy one--perhaps because he is a convicted felon or has a history of mental illness. So, he gets a friend or acquaintance to buy that gun for him, and they then give it to him later.

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