The legal battle against gun manufacturers and distributors escalated last week when Los Angeles, along with other California cities, filed lawsuits assailing the gun industry under the state business code. The aim of the litigation, which we strongly support, is to dismantle a lax distribution system that willfully fails to prevent handguns from falling into the hands of criminals or children; the action also seeks to make companies that don't comply pay with their profits. This is one more useful and reasonable tool--combined with incremental local, state and national laws--for reining in gun violence.
The litigation was inspired by the $250-billion settlement reached by 46 states with the tobacco companies last year. It got a significant boost in February when a federal jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., awarded $520,000 in damages from gun makers to a shooting victim. Evidence gathered in that case revealed a pattern of the gun companies' callous indifference to the havoc that firearms wreak on the nation's communities. In addition to a score of lawsuits filed by cities, including New Orleans, Chicago and Miami, the industry is facing a growing number of personal injury cases brought by shooting victims or their families.
The California cases are cleverly different. They are based on a state statute prohibiting "unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business practices." The same law, enacted in 1977, has been successfully used by Los Angeles to prosecute travel agencies for fraud, improper switching of customer accounts by telephone companies, advertising by tobacco companies and scanner overcharging by supermarkets.
In the L.A. complaint, citing more than 40 gun manufacturers, distributors and their associations, City Atty. James Hahn alleges that a "substantial percentage" of guns used by criminals in California comes from illegitimate secondary markets, so their eventual owners of course do not undergo the background checks required under federal and state laws. The lawsuit draws on the testimony in the Brooklyn case of a former Smith & Wesson executive who said the industry knows that guns peddled on the black markets come mainly from legitimate dealers, not from gun thefts, as the gun lobby claims. The manufacturers' alleged knowledge and disregard of shady gun trade are key to the California cases.
The L.A. lawsuit, which includes Compton and West Hollywood, and a similar one filed in San Francisco on behalf of six Northern California cities argue that the industry's lax distribution system amounts to an unfair commercial practice. Guns without advanced safety devices are called hazardous and their sale a public nuisance.
Manufacturers of some consumer products far less dangerous than handguns are required to add certain safety features and in some cases to keep track of their distribution. The gun industry is belatedly facing the same choice that consumer product manufacturers did in the 1970s. Either it will spend its profits on product liability damages or channel its resources into making guns and their distribution safer. The California lawsuits are another strong push in the right direction.