Archive for Thursday, May 15, 2003

Jury rejects NAACP lawsuit blaming gun makers for violence

May 15, 2003

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— Rejecting a lawsuit brought by the NAACP, a federal jury Wednesday cleared 45 gun manufacturers and distributors of allegations their marketing practices have stoked violence in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The jury deliberated for five days before reaching its verdict in the closely watched case that now goes to the judge for a final decision. The panel was unable to reach a verdict regarding 23 other defendants.

Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Assn., called the ruling "common sense" and said the lawsuit was "aimed at bankrupting a law-abiding American industry by holding them liable for the actions of criminals."

Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he was disappointed by the jury's findings.

In an unusual ruling, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein decided ahead of time the jury would play only an advisory role and that he would make the final decision in the case. Both sides will submit written arguments interpreting the jury's verdict within 30 days.

The lawsuit claimed the firearms industry knew corrupt dealers were supplying products to criminals in minority communities and did nothing to stop it.

Rather than monetary damages, the NAACP sought to force distributors to restrict sales to dealers with storefront outlets, prohibit sales to gun show dealers and limit individual purchasers to one handgun a month.

The defendants and the gun industry argued it was unfair and illegal to hold manufacturers liable for the criminal use of a legal product. They also said that legislatures -- not courts -- should set standards for sales.

"Nobody wants to have someone selling to criminals," James Dorr, attorney for Sturm, Ruger & Co., said during closing arguments. "This industry certainly doesn't."

The verdict followed more than five weeks of testimony in the suit against 68 defendants, including Smith & Wesson Corp., Glock Inc., Colt Manufacturing and other major gun makers and distributors.

The plaintiffs built much of their case on previously sealed data -- provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms under court order -- detailing sales histories of weapons recovered at crime scenes in New York state from 1996 to 2000.

An expert witness testified that an analysis found 11 percent of handguns sold in 1996 were used in rapes, robberies, assaults and murders by 2000.

The defendants knew they were feeding a pool of illegal handguns and "purposely turned their head away from the problem," NAACP attorney Elisa Barnes told the jury. "They said, 'It's not our worry."'

Defense experts claimed the analysis was flawed. They said their own studies found that most guns used by criminals come from a secondary market of used or stolen guns.

Since 1998, more than two dozen cities, counties and states have sued gun makers, many claiming the manufacturers allowed weapons to reach criminals because of irresponsible marketing. Many suits have been dismissed or dropped, but Congress is considering legislation backed by the White House and the NRA to protect gun makers and sellers from lawsuits arising from the criminal or unlawful use of their products.

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