Thu, May 30, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Gun makers say illegal sales are not their problem

More than 30 US cities, counties or states filed a lawsuit against gun makers from the late 1990s onward using a similar theory to successful suits against tobacco firms, but they all ran aground

By Mike McIntire and Michael Luo  /  NY Times News Service

“Leaders in the industry have consistently resisted taking constructive voluntary action to prevent firearms from ending up in the illegal gun market and have sought to silence others within the industry who have advocated reform,” Ricker wrote in a 2003 affidavit on behalf of the city of San Diego.

Ricker detailed the backlash from the NRA and trade groups against anyone who pressed for changes to industry practices. Because of his calls for reform, Ricker, who died of cancer in 2009, said he was forced to resign as the head of the trade group.

Another insider, Robert Hass, a former Smith & Wesson executive, testified that “the nature of the product demands that its distribution be handled in such a way as to minimize illegal and unintended use.”

Yet, he said in an affidavit: “The industry’s position has consistently been to take no independent action to ensure responsible distribution practices.”

Robert Morrison, who retired two years ago as Taurus’ president, said that he expected the dealers who sell Taurus guns to abide by the law, but he said it was not his company’s role as a manufacturer to enforce responsible behavior.

“It isn’t up to me to judge the legality of the sale,” he testified in 2001. “It’s up to the authorities,” he said.

The executives were reluctant to concede that guns that were the subject of trace requests by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were necessarily tied to a crime, pointing to a disclaimer that “not all firearms used in crime are traced and not all firearms traced are used in crime.”

When police wish to trace the ownership of a gun found at a crime scene, the bureau contacts the manufacturer with the serial number to try to learn where it was first sold.

Morrison cast doubt on the definition of “crime gun,” saying: “I wonder if they found them in the bushes or under a car, or maybe they didn’t find them at all, maybe they just showed up at the police department.”

When Larry Nelson, a vice president of Browning, was asked if he agreed that trace requests relate to criminal investigations, he said that the requests make “some kind of statement at the top of the form that suggests that, but I think in reality it can be simply a gun that is not necessarily associated with crime.”

As quickly as the suits were filed, they began to run aground. Most were dismissed by judges or withdrawn. In some states, legislatures passed their own laws shielding gun makers from liability, leading to dismissals, and most of the suits that survived were eventually stymied by the federal immunity legislation passed in 2005.

In at least one case, a federal judge concluded that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that the industry could do more to reduce gun violence — but he dismissed the suit, brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, because he said the group lacked standing to claim damages.

In his 2003 decision, the judge, Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, criticized the gun makers for turning a blind eye to gun violence.

“A responsible and consistent program of monitoring their own sales practices, enforcing good practices by contract and the entirely practicable supervision of sales of their products by the companies to which they sell could keep thousands of handguns from diversion into criminal use,” Weinstein wrote.

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