Negotiators for firearms makers and major U.S. cities met privately Monday in Washington to discuss the potential for settling the wave of municipal lawsuits that have engulfed the handgun industry.
Participants, including Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn, declined to give details but said further meetings are planned, suggesting possible areas of common ground.
Beginning with New Orleans and Chicago last fall, 26 cities and counties have sued the handgun industry, seeking reimbursement for costs of responding to gun violence, along with broad reforms in industry marketing practices. Nearly half of the plaintiffs are California municipalities, including the city and county of Los Angeles, Compton, West Hollywood and Inglewood, along with San Francisco, Sacramento and other Northern California cities.
Hahn and San Francisco City Atty. Louise Renne both attended the meeting, as did New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer and Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal. No states have joined the litigation, but Spitzer and Blumenthal have threatened to sue gun makers unless they agree to changes in business practices.
"We're either going to settle or sue," a spokesman for Spitzer said.
The meeting "was a chance for us both to communicate face to face, and they heard our concerns and we heard theirs," Hahn said. "We are going to continue this dialogue."
In the meantime, the gun litigation will also continue, with no halt in pretrial discovery or motions by defense attorneys to have the suits dismissed. "There's nothing that happened at the meeting that's going to derail these suits," a spokesman for Renne said.
The suits accuse the industry of failing to build in safety features that would prevent children from being accidentally shot or criminals from firing stolen guns. They also accuse manufacturers of failing to supervise the sales practices of firearms distributors and dealers who make it easy for juveniles and criminals to obtain guns.
The goals of any settlement would be "to make the product itself safer and to keep it from falling into the hands of kids or criminals," Hahn said.
Industry officials say they are not to blame for criminal misuse of their products, and have denounced the suits as an improper attempt to regulate them through the courts.
Industry negotiators could not be reached for comment, but Bruce Jennings, a fixture in the industry in Southern California who did not attend the meeting, said he has no intention of settling.
"I can't settle," said Jennings, who operates B.L. Jennings, a major handgun distributor, and whose former wife owns Bryco Arms, a gun manufacturer in Costa Mesa. "There's no money out there to pay off litigation in the magnitudes that they're talking about."
Jennings' father 30 years ago pioneered the production and sale of the inexpensive handguns that have come to be known as "Saturday night specials." Jennings family members and associates came to dominate the low end of the handgun market, operating from plants near Los Angeles.
In part because of a slump in handgun sales and litigation pressures, some of those companies recently have gone out of business or filed for bankruptcy protection.