1999 — the year in review:
Columbine catalyzes the gun debate
It began as a crack in the “solid wall” defense of the gun industry, a February verdict rendered in favor of plaintiffs who brought a civil liability suit against manufacturers. But by April, that fissure had become a full-blown breech in the aftermath of the massacre at Columbine High School.
Although the walls did not come down, a slew of pending lawsuits filed by major cities in 1999, seeking damages for gun-related violence, did raise the question of whether the handgun industry would go the same way as “Big Tobacco.”
Some 28 municipalities, plus the NAACP, brought suits against the industry last year or had litigation pending. In addition, the Federal Government in December said it would coordinate a class-action suit if the industry did not agree to make sweeping changes. The Federal suit would be brought on behalf of some 3,300 public-housing authorities on the grounds that gun companies design unsafe products and knowingly distribute them to criminals. In an effort to stave off inclusion in a potential suit by the State of New York, Colt’s Manufacturing, the nation’s largest gun maker, and another, unidentified gun maker, entered into negotiations with New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to see if concessions could be worked out.
While the numerous civil actions initiated against gun makers led the issue last year, there was also a barrage of legislation prompted by the school shooting in Littleton, Colo. Gun-control advocates seemed to have the upper hand in the months following the tragedy, counting among their successes the scrapping of concealed-weapons bills by lawmakers in Colorado and by voters in Missouri.
Closely examined by all parties in the debate was the verdict handed down on Feb. 11 by a Federal jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., which found 15 of 25 handgun manufacturers liable for negligence because their marketing practices fostered illegal gun trafficking.
The suit was brought by relatives of six people killed with illegally obtained handguns in New York City and Yonkers, and by a seventh victim who survived with a bullet lodged in his brain. Of the 15 found liable, the jury found nine of those also liable for at least one of three shootings, two of which were fatal. Jurors found that the gun makers, which included American Arms, Arcadia Machine & Tool, Beretta U.S.A., Colt’s and Glock Inc., had marketed and oversupplied weapons to Southern states that have weak gun laws. Those sales led in turn to illegal trafficking in states with stricter gun laws, including New York.
Among the dozens of cities that initiated legal action were Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Bridgeport, Conn., Miami-Dade County, Fla. On May 25, both Los Angeles and San Francisco filed their own suits charging gun manufacturers, dealers and firearms trade groups with “deliberate indifference” to gun violence. Unlike the other cities, the California suits will not seek a set amount for damages; instead, they may impose penalties for any injury or death caused by an unlawful sale or accidental discharge.
Officials in Newark, N.J., also joined the growing list of litigants when the City sued 29 gun manufacturers on June 9 for failing to provide safety locks and address other safety issues. The suit sought unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.
In July, the NAACP said it would file a suit in Federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., seeking changes in the industry rather than monetary awards. Gun makers would be required to take steps to ensure that distributors limited sales to no more than one per month per customer. The suit would also seek to ban the sale of handguns at gun shows and require trigger locks and other safety mechanisms as part of the weapon’s original equipment.
One finding that was released for the benefit of law enforcement, but which was considered likely to bolster plaintiffs’ claims, came in a report released in February by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms which found that more than half the guns used in crimes by individuals ages 18 to 24 during the past three years were acquired by intermediaries, or “straws,” who purchased them from Federally-licensed dealers on behalf of the real user.
Of the 76,260 guns seized in crimes in 27 cities and traced by the agency’s Youth Crime Interdiction Initiative, only 35 percent were found to have been stolen, while 51 percent were obtained by straws. The results of the study flew in the face of long held beliefs by both law enforcement and the gun lobby that firearms used in crimes tended to be stolen.
In many cases, however, pending litigation was stopped in its tracks by legislative action, if not the courts.
South Dakota Gov. William Janklow in March signed a bill that limits the liability of gun manufacturers and dealers when firearms are used to kill or injure people. In May, the Missouri Legislature tried and failed to pass a bill that would have barred St. Louis and other cities from taking legal action against the industry. A second bill was passed, however, with a provision that would hold cities liable for the cost of such cases if the action was found to be frivolous.
In Louisiana, state lawmakers retroactively nullified New Orleans’ suit against the gun industry with a bill passed on June 3 that prevents municipalities from suing gun manufacturers. Wisconsin legislators also tried to prevent municipalities from suing the industry, with a bill proposed in June that would make it impossible to sue gun makers or retailers for handgun violence unless the weapons were defective or sold with disregard for the safety of the buyer.
Arizona’s Governor, Jane Dee Hull, was among the few state officials who vetoed such pre-emptive legislation. Hull said that taking away the ability of cities to “control their destiny when it comes to guns” made no sense to her. Although passage of a similar bill in Florida seemed assured, action on the legislation was delayed because lawmakers said a debate on the issue would have been unseemly after Columbine.
When it comes to causing grave concern among legal scholars, it was hard to top a ruling by a Federal judge in Texas, who found that Second Amendment guarantees of an individual’s right to bear arms supersedes a 1994 Federal law prohibiting firearms possession by anyone under a restraining order.
The case, U.S. v. Emerson, involves a man indicted by a Federal grand jury for owning a handgun after being placed under a restraining order during a divorce proceeding. District Judge Sam Cummings wrote that the law forbidding 41-year-old Joe Emerson from owning a weapon is “unconstitutional because it allows a state court divorce proceeding, without particularized findings of the threat of future violence, to automatically deprive a citizen of his Second Amendment rights.”
Voters in Missouri handed the powerful National Rifle Association a stunning defeat in April when a concealed-weapons bill failed in a referendum. The measure, known as Proposition B, was rejected by 74 percent of voters in the St. Louis area alone. With both the gun-control and pro-gun lobbies fighting hard over the measure, some 1.3 million votes were cast — the highest turnout rate ever recorded for an April election, said election officials.
Although cities were precluded in many cases from bringing suits, state officials did take action aimed at curbing gun violence. That was particularly the case in California, where Gov. Gray Davis in July signed into law what was considered to be the toughest ban yet on assault rifles in the nation. The law essentially banned the sale, import or manufacture of any semiautomatic pistol or rifle that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, or has such accessories as a pistol grip or folding stock. It also made a crime the manufacture, sale, import, or give away of any magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds.
Davis also signed another measure banning gun buyers from making more than one handgun purchase per month. Similar bills were passed in Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina.
In New Jersey, retiring U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg called for Federal legislation in August that would require all states to license and register gun owners. Anyone seeking to own a handgun would have to obtain a photo license and undergo a background check. Moreover, all guns sold or transferred would have to be registered, and the purchaser’s name, gun model and serial number would be recorded by state authorities.
Other gun-related measures adopted by states last year included one imposing automatic prison sentences on those caught illegally carrying guns in Cook County, Ill. Prior to the new law, enacted in July, about 80 percent of the county’s gun charges had been dropped as part of plea bargains. The Child Access Prevention Law was also signed by Illinois Gov. George Ryan, which makes gun owners responsible for safely storing firearms. Those who do not use trigger locks or store guns in locked containers in a home where a minor lives or visits face up to 30 days in jail or fines of up to $1,000. The law does not apply, however, if a minor uses the firearm in self-defense or to illegally break into a residence.
Yet even as police, prosecutors and lawmakers were working to take guns out of circulation, some law enforcement agencies, including those in Boston, Detroit and New Orleans, reaped their share of embarrassment when it was revealed that in trade-in agreements with firearms dealers, confiscated weapons and out-of-date police sidearms were being returned to the streets.
In fact, New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial suspended a 1997 deal between the Police Department and Glock Inc. after it was learned that thousands of firearms, including AK-47s and TEC-9s, had been put back into circulation after the gun maker resold them on the wholesale market to an Indiana dealer. The decision to resell the weapons had been a financial one — the NOPD received a credit of more than $400,000 towards the purchase of new .40-caliber handguns when it traded in some 10,000 weapons.
In Minnesota, Gov. Jesse Ventura signed a bill in June authorizing police to sell, trade or destroy some of the firearms they confiscate. But in Kentucky, police officers in several jurisdictions voiced disappointment in a law that took effect in July, which requires them to auction off guns they seize from criminals. Officials said they would rather destroy the weapons than have them end up back in circulation.