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Urban Rhythms

Big Shots

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 8/15/2001

California's highest court supposedly dealt gun-control advocates a major blow Aug. 6 when it ruled that gun makers should not be held liable for the criminal use of their products. But the court's ruling was, at best, only a temporary setback in the ongoing campaign to bypass politicians--who appear to be so deep in the gun industry's pockets that they have lint in their hair--by going to the courts. For a glimpse of the future, examine the fate of Big Tobacco.

For decades, the tobacco industry was undefeated in court. Smokers or their next of kin would creep onto the witness stand, looking pathetic, only to have a jury of their peers kick them unceremoniously to the curb. Juries--which are made up of everyday people like you and me--had little patience for the argument that cigarette manufacturers should be held responsible for an individual's decision to smoke.

But opinions changed when defense attorneys uncovered evidence that the tobacco industry had known for decades that its products were unsafe, that it lied to the public and to legislators, that it spiked its products with nicotine knowing that nicotine is addictive, and that it deliberately aimed its marketing efforts at children. Jurors may believe that individuals must accept responsibility for their decision to smoke, but they also held Big Tobacco accountable for its decision to deceive. Responsibility is a two-way street.

The same process might eventually catch up to gun manufacturers. It is hard to disagree with the industry's contention that it cannot control or be held responsible for the things criminals decide to do. In the California case, a disgruntled businessperson named Gian Luigi Ferri walked into a San Francisco office building with a TEC-DC9 military assault pistol in July 1993 and began firing at random, killing eight people before he killed himself. OK. So the man was crazy.

But in dismissing the case, the California Supreme Court based its decision on a hastily passed law that specifically protects gun manufacturers from product-liability lawsuits. "[W]e are not insensitive to the terrible tragedy that occurred on July 1, 1993, or the devastating effect of Ferri's rampage on his victims and their loved ones," the court majority wrote. "But the legislature has set California's public policy regarding a gun manufacturer's liability under these circumstances. Given that public policy, plaintiffs may not proceed with their negligence claim."

In essence, then, we are right back where we began--trying to find a way to bypass all those politicians with lint in their hair.

According to the Violence Policy Center, a national gun-control advocacy group, the firearms industry and the National Rifle Association have launched a major campaign to inoculate gun makers from liability lawsuits. One effort focuses on moving such cases from local courts to state courts, another on moving them from state to federal courts. A third line of attack is pushing to outlaw such cases entirely. In short, anti-gun-control forces are trying to keep the evidence away from people like you and me by any means necessary.

And what might that evidence reveal? Well, gun-control advocates allege that the firearms industry deliberately manufactures lethal weapons knowing that those weapons will not be used for hunting, collecting, or sport, but for crime. They allege that the industry produces more of those weapons than the legal market can absorb, again knowing that the excess will be distributed through the underworld. They allege that the industry conspires to make those weapons available in and around urban communities, where the industry's own marketing data reveal that there are comparatively few collectors and hunters but a surplus of criminals. And they allege that the industry has rejected gun locks and other safety features that might be acceptable to honest collectors because the criminal market would find them inconvenient.

The firearms industry claims that it is innocent. It claims that it keeps pumping out assault pistols and Saturday-night specials in good faith, trusting that only honest men and women will buy them. The fact that its products somehow, miraculously, find their way into the hands of bad people causes industry executives endless sorrow, or so they say.

As a matter of law, the burden of proof would be on the plaintiffs. And the history of tobacco litigation suggests that jurors, being men and women of good sense, are going to demand solid, indisputable proof that gun-control advocates' charges are true.

On the other hand, the history of tobacco litigation also reminds us that big businesses usually leave a paper trail when they make decisions--marketing studies, flow charts, sales analyses, and lots and lots of memos. There are almost always disgruntled minions itching to blow the whistle and guilt-ridden executives aching for the chance to unburden their consciences. If the charges are true, determined attorneys are bound, sooner or later, to bring that truth to light.

Gun makers, the NRA, and puppet politicians would do almost anything to stifle litigation before a tidal wave of revelations turns public opinion against them. Pious, self-righteous hypocrites that they are, they believe that responsibility and accountability are words that apply only to other people. Victims are responsible for their actions, never the perpetrators.

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