Citing New Law, Gun Lobby Pushes to Dismiss Suits

In October, Congress passed a law intended to throw out most liability lawsuits against the gun industry. But gun control groups are pressing ahead with their lawsuits, saying an exemption in the law allows for specific suits targeting "illegal activity" by gun manufacturers and sellers. Representatives of the firearms industry say the lawsuits are against the clear intent of Congress, and they're pushing to have them dismissed.

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Gun control groups are working hard to keep a series of liability lawsuits against the firearms industry alive. Last month Congress passed a bill that barred many of the liability suits against gunmakers, but the plaintiffs in these cases say the law contains an exemption that should allow them to get damages from the industry. Here's NPR's Larry Abramson.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The industry cheered when President Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, hoping the law would put an end to a rash of suits by cities and by victims of gun violence. But this past week, supporters of a suit by the city of New York went before a federal judge and said their case should go forward. Attorney Eric Proshansky says he told the judge that the law envisioned exceptions.

Mr. ERIC PROSHANSKY (Attorney): Suits are exempt if you can show a violation of state or federal law that's applicable to the sale or distribution of guns.

ABRAMSON: Proshansky says in the case of New York's suit, gunmakers are violating a state law against creating a public nuisance. He says they're selling guns to dealers, who then look the other way when guns are passed to criminals.

Mr. PROSHANSKY: We allege in our lawsuit that it's the conduct of the manufacturers and certain dealers and certain distributors that are resulting in guns winding up in the streets of New York.

ABRAMSON: The industry says the New York effort was exactly the kind of lawsuit the federal ban was supposed to extinguish, i.e. efforts by cities and victims to blame the industry for gun violence by criminals. Gunmakers lobbied for the ban because they said they had no control over what criminals do with legally purchased firearms. Larry Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation says the federal law only lets suits go ahead where there was clear negligence by the dealer or by the manufacturer of a gun used in a crime.

Mr. LARRY KEANE (National Shooting Sports Foundation): For example, if a dealer knowingly violated a provision of the Gun Control Act in selling a firearm to a prohibited person, who then misused that firearm to injure somebody.

ABRAMSON: Keane says gun control lawyers are reaching for some law that will keep their suits going. The public nuisance law, Keane says, is seldom, if ever, applied to the gun industry. And he says the plaintiffs more morphing their lawsuits, so that they will slip in under the exemption to the federal law.

Mr. KEANE: They are--now gone from trying to blame the defendants in the case for the actions of criminals to now calling the defendants criminals and now claiming that they have violated criminal nuisance in the second degree, which is a Class B misdemeanor under New York law.

ABRAMSON: Plaintiffs concede they are examining each suit to see whether they qualify for an exemption. They may then have to make their arguments in each court. But opponents of the firearms industry are hoping to short-circuit that process. Brian Siebel of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says his group also plans to challenge the constitutionality of the federal ban in each case.

Mr. BRIAN SIEBEL (Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence): And we will continue to argue, in every court where we can be heard, that this statute is unconstitutional; that it deprives citizens of the right of access to courts; that it's a violation of an age-old principle of separation of powers.

ABRAMSON: Making that argument could take some time, but it looks like it's the only way for gun control supporters to chip away at the federal ban, a law that the gun lobby has long regarded as one of its chief legislative priorities. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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