Wed, Jul 23, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Lawsuit against US gun makers thrown out on technicality

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

A US federal judge in Brooklyn on Monday dismissed a lawsuit against the gun industry that had drawn national attention with its claims that gun makers are responsible for killings because they allow handguns to be channeled to criminals.

But Judge Jack Weinstein of US District Court, said the case failed for technical reasons, and declared in strong language that carelessness and lack of precautions by some in the firearms industry foster an illegal market in handguns.

"The evidence presented at trial demonstrated that defendants are responsible for the creation of a public nuisance," Weinstein said.

He added that gun makers and distributors could sharply limit gun violence "voluntarily and through easily implemented changes in marketing and more discriminating control of sales practices."

A six-week trial in the case this spring attracted wide interest, in part because it featured the first testimony of an industry whistle-blower and the presentation of long-sealed federal data tracing gun sales.

The suit was filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1999. It claimed that the practices of the gun industry amount to a public nuisance -- a widespread intrusion on public health and safety -- because they permit guns to fall into the hands of criminals.

That trial ended with a murky jury verdict that was favorable to the industry, but the jury's role in the case was merely advisory, and the judge's decision on Monday was the final ruling.

Critics of the gun industry said the decision provided a road map for future suits.

"This decision is a blueprint for why the gun industry should be held responsible," said Mathew Nosanchuk, the litigation director for the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group that favors gun control and is involved in several cases across the country challenging gun-industry practices.

Some lawyers predicted that a similar case also before Weinstein that was filed by New York City three years ago will now become the pivotal test of the viability of suits against the gun industry, because the legal barrier that blocked the association would not apply to the city.

In his ruling, the judge said that New York law requires that an organization like the NAACP prove that it suffered particular harm that was different from the harm suffered by the public at large.

Elisa Barnes, the lead lawyer for the NAACP, said Weinstein's ruling showed that the group had accomplished many of its goals by blazing a legal path that can be followed by the lawyers for the city and other municipalities across the country.

In a statement Monday, the city's lawyers said the ruling would "be of enormous benefit" in its suit and others. Aside from the New York City case, other municipalities filed about 20 cases against the gun industry advancing similar "public nuisance" arguments in recent years. About half of those are still moving through the courts.

Representatives of the gun industry said Monday that they were gratified to have won the case. But they attacked Wein-stein's extensive comments in the 175-page ruling as the gratuitous remarks of a judge they have called a liberal with an anti-gun agenda.

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