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Dealers, Firms Accept Curbs, Settle Gun Suit

Lawyers for plaintiffs hail move, but defense says most actions are already in place.

August 22, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Two gun dealers and three firearms distributors have agreed to do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, ending four years of litigation against them by lawyers for 12 California cities and counties, officials said Thursday.

This is the first time that members of the gun industry have settled a lawsuit by agreeing to changes in their business practices, according to Dennis Henigan, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Gun industry representatives said the settlement lacked significance because it reflected what the defendants were already doing.

Among the concessions are agreements by defendants not to sell firearms at gun shows and to annually train employees to block sales to "straw purchasers," who buy weapons for those restricted from doing so. They also agreed to improve their ability to track inventory to ensure that authorities are immediately notified of lost and stolen guns. The defendants will also pay a total of $70,000 to the plaintiffs.

Dozens of municipalities have filed suits against the gun industry in recent years without much success. The California case represents a victory for the anti-gun lobby.

"The suits are not about recovering millions and millions of dollars. They are about reforming the gun industry," Henigan said. "I think the settlement will make it clear ... that there are ways in which gun sellers can change their business practices to reduce the flow of illegal guns into the market."

Gun industry advocates downplayed the settlement, saying that the case involves minor players. They note that all of the claims targeting gun manufacturers and firearms trade associations have been dismissed. That ruling has been appealed.

The settlement is being used "to deflect attention from the abject failure of the California cities' lawsuit against the industry," said Lawrence Keane, a gun industry spokesman. "They are agreeing to do what they were already doing. Many of the companies have already gone beyond the minimums required by law."

The plaintiffs, including the city and county of Los Angeles, filed suits in 1999, charging that gun manufacturers, distributors and dealers were a public nuisance and conducted unfair business practices. Three separate cases were filed and they were all assigned to San Diego County Superior Court Judge Vincent DiFiglia for trial.

The suits alleged that defendants "engaged in sales practices that supply criminals and gun traffickers with guns," said attorney Jonathan Lowy of the Brady Center. A trial had been set for October. After months of negotiations, the settlement was completed Thursday, according to lawyers. It must be approved by DiFiglia.

"The point of the litigation was to save the lives of Californians put at risk by irresponsible gun sales and gun distribution practices," Lowy said.

The plaintiffs targeted a few industry practices that they believe contribute to illegal gun use. For example, Southern Ohio Gun Distributors agreed, as part of the settlement, not to sell firearms to "kitchen table dealers" in California and neighboring states, according to Larry Hafetz, a principal deputy Los Angeles County counsel. Such dealers are licensed but do not operate from traditional storefronts.

They are also trying to stop straw purchases by one buyer for another by training employees to stop questionable sales, Lowy said. Federal law requires a report within 48 hours of the discovery that a gun is missing, he said.

Attorney Chuck Michel said his client, Turner's Outdoorsman, with 13 stores in Southern California, had already implemented most of the reforms being touted by the plaintiffs.

Jack Leavitt, an attorney for Traders Sports, said he was pleased with the settlement. "We have always complied with the law and the government is more comfortable now that we have given public assurances of our compliance."

The other defendants are Ellett Bros., a Georgia-based distributor, and MKS Supply, an Ohio distributor.

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