- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 1999

Legal experts warned that the shakedown campaign against tobacco companies was just a first step. They said the unholy alliance of greedy politicians and trial lawyers would not stop after fleecing a single industry. They predicted our entire system of justice could be corrupted.
Unfortunately, they were right. The latest step in the destruction of our legal order occurred last week when Andrew Cuomo, the nondescript but politically ambitious secretary of housing and urban development (HUD), indicated his department might file a class action suit against firearms manufacturers. Combined with about 30 lawsuits filed by various local governments, the industry clearly is being subjected to an all-out assault.
The stated reason for the proposed lawsuit is that HUD spends $1 billion yearly on crime control in nearly 3,200 public housing projects and that gun violence contributes to this expense. The administration claims they are not after money, incidentally, but instead are seeking to stop “irresponsible marketing practices” on the part of gun makers. HUD also hopes that the menace of federal litigation will convince manufacturers to throw in the towel and settle the dozens of lawsuits filed by local governments.
As a practical matter, HUD’s arguments are absurd. Consider, for instance, the primary goal of changing the industry’s marketing practices. Gun makers and/or gun dealers are somehow supposed to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals. That certainly sounds nice, but how is that supposed to happen? One way, according to administration officials, is to stop selling guns to “straw purchasers,” people who buy on behalf of felons.
Yet how are gun sellers supposed to know who is a straw purchaser? Do they arbitrarily reject buyers with tattoos? Motorcycle owners? Black people? Spanish-speaking people? Needless to say, the imposition of such a policy would be a green light for people to engage in racial profiling and deny sales on the basis of negative stereotypes and prejudice.
Supporters of the lawsuits argue that other restrictions, such as limiting people to one gun purchase a month, might serve the same purpose. They also argue that closing down dealers who sell too many guns that are later traced to crimes would make it harder for criminals to become armed. In all likelihood, however, these steps would simply encourage criminals to get guns from other sources, such as the black market.
And since these steps would increase the costs of gun ownership for law-abiding people, the likely impact of the proposals is that crime would increase since criminals would be less worried about victims being able to defend themselves.
But this debate is not or at least should not be about gun control. Instead, this is an important battle for justice and the rule of law. After all, if politicians and trial lawyers can pervert the law for political and monetary gain by targeting politically incorrect businesses, it is only a matter of time before they go after fast-food companies (obesity and heart disease), breweries (drunk driving and liver disease), bicycle makers (broken bones, fatal accidents), and swimming pool producers (neck injuries, drowning).
Two elementary principles are at stake in this fight. First, should criminals be held responsible for their actions or should the blame for crimes somehow be shifted to society as a whole? More specifically, the politicians who are suing the firearms industry claim they are motivated by a desire to reduce crime. Yet, if this is the case, they should increase the punishment of criminals rather than add more gun control measures to the 20,000 that already exist. The drop in criminal behavior during the 1990s, after all, is directly tied to the tough-on-crime reforms that began in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, this progress could be reversed if lawmakers succeed in shifting the blame from the person committing crimes to a fuzzy concept like firearms “marketing practices.” Indeed, we may already be heading in this direction. A Syracuse University study has found prosecutions of federal gun crimes have fallen by 40 percent.
The second principle at stake is whether politicians should be held accountable for mismanagement. This is why HUD’s potential lawsuit is such a farce. HUD is the nation’s biggest slumlord, and it is HUD that should bear at least some of the responsibility for the dangerous conditions in public housing projects.
Sadly, HUD has a well-deserved reputation for incompetence, and that image has declined even further during Mr. Cuomo’s tenure. Many speculate that Mr. Cuomo has launched this anti-gun campaign as a way of getting publicity for a future political campaign. Others suggest he simply wants to divert attention from scandals, such as the rebuke he suffered for improperly trying to punish the department’s inspector general for exposing wasteful spending (the patronage-riddled “Community Builder” program being a perfect example). Whatever the motivation, Mr. Cuomo is not fulfilling his basic responsibility as HUD secretary.
In the upside-down world of Washington, however, criminals are not held accountable for doing wrong and politicians are not expected to do what is right. Instead, the rule of law goes out the window, and justice simply becomes a game that is decided by stacking courts, changing rules and hiring the best spin doctors.


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