After a long string of political defeats that culminated in the Democratic Party’s loss of control in Congress in 1994, gun-control activists decided to take a new tack.
They would litigate instead of legislate, and gain in the courts what they had been unable to achieve in the political arena: the effective repression of private firearms ownership in America.
The mayors of New Orleans and Chicago, leaders of their cities’ Democratic Party machines, kicked off the campaign in the fall of 1998 with lawsuits seeking to hold handgun manufacturers liable for the monumental costs of violent crimes committed in their bailiwicks. Late that same year, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley hosted a meeting of officials from 15 cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to plan litigation strategy and boasted, "This is just the beginning."
Indeed it was. Inspired by the recent success of the plaintiff’s bar against the tobacco industry, the leaders of city after city filed lawsuits against the firearms makers. And what they sought was more than billion-dollar judgments, though visions of such surely danced in their heads. They sought what Brady Center attorney Dennis Hennigan called a "doctrinal framework for the eventual liability of the gun industry" — one that, in the words of Temple University law professor David Kairys, would hold that gunmakers "profit from crime and so they should pay the public costs of crime."
But a funny thing happened on the way to the jackpot: suit after suit was thrown out of court. In rejecting Cincinnati’s lawsuit, the Ohio state court of appeals noted that to accept the gun-control lawyers’ reasoning "would open a Pandora’s box" and might well lead to suits against "the manufacturers of matches for arson, or automobile manufacturers for traffic accidents or breweries for drunk driving."
But as both sides in this conflict acknowledge, it would only take one judicial activist or antigun jury to open that Pandora’s box — and not only place firearms outside the reach of anyone save the fabulously wealthy but cripple an industry that, according to a June 27 letter from the Department of Defense to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., "plays a critical role in meeting the procurement needs of our men and women in uniform."
That being the case, in July the U.S. Senate passed by a 65-31 vote a bill titled "The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act," intended to thwart the litigious machinations of antigun activists. Its companion measure in the House passed Thursday, 283-144, and now goes to the desk of President George W. Bush, who has said he will sign it.
Well that he should. The people responsible for crime are criminals, and there is no shortage of legal weaponry to go after them with. Absent criminal intent or gross negligence, guns are not inherently dangerous, and their makers should not be the target of repression — litigious or otherwise.