City lawsuits take aim at firearms industry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 1998, 12:00am

Two of the United States' most violent cities have mounted an unprecedented legal challenge against the firearms industry in a bid to reverse the tide of gun-related deaths.

Chicago and New Orleans are suing gun makers and retailers, hoping to do to gun violence what a nationwide torrent of litigation has done to the tobacco industry.

The US$400 million (HK$3.1 billion) lawsuit filed last week by Chicago authorities claims the industry is turning a blind eye to the illegal use of firearms.

New Orleans is using consumer safety laws to sue manufacturers for selling weapons which it says have not been fitted with adequate safety features and are thus 'unreasonably dangerous'.

Leaders of both cities acknowledge they have the same aim - to make the gun industry liable for the deaths that continue to plague US streets, just as most state governments have sued cigarette firms for the cost of treating patients made ill by smoking.

Until now, taking the gun industry to court would have seemed impossible in a country where the right to bear arms is enshrined in the constitution.

But the tide of public opinion is slowly turning in favour of more gun control. Philadelphia and Miami are among cities considering joining the crusade.

'We don't want to ban guns, we want guns made safer,' said New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial. 'Thirty years ago, the auto industry claimed it would go bankrupt if forced to install safety belts, air bags and crashworthy bumpers. Not only is it not bankrupt, we have had a reduction of highway fatalities.' Chicago's chief attorney, Brian Crow, said: 'Our complaint is not that the gun doesn't work or is defective - it works too well.' The Chicago lawsuit will be the more closely watched from a legal perspective, because it will have to overcome the gun lobby's defence that gun makers and sellers cannot be held accountable for what criminals do with a product which is perfectly legal.

Federal law gives every adult with no criminal record the right to own a gun after a simple check.

But Chicago authorities spent months planning the legal assault - including undercover police operations in which officers were able to buy weapons which sellers had reason to believe would end up in the hands of felons.

A law requiring all handguns sold in New York to have a safety-locking device took effect on Saturday. But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said it did not go far enough. He said gun owners should not only buy locks but be forced to use them; that locks also be required for the 250,000 guns already owned in the city and that the rules be extended to other firearms.