- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2000

The District of Columbia, which has banned gun possession since 1976, Thursday filed suit against 23 gun manufacturers, seeking millions in compensation for Medicaid expenses the city attributes to the gun violence.

"We're supposed to have the toughest gun prohibitions in the nation, and yet our streets are flooded with guns," Mayor Anthony A. Williams said. "For too long, the gun industry, in my mind, has profited while our best and brightest hopes for the future have been snuffed out by illegal guns that should never have been allowed to hit our streets.

"Today, we're saying enough is enough."

But the city's case, filed in D.C. Superior Court, could run into a congressional roadblock from Republicans who think criminals, not gun makers, deserve blame for shootings.

Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, vowed to seek swift legislation intended to prevent the city from spending local or federal cash to pursue the suit, which he described as "political grandstanding."

"If gun control worked, Washington, D.C., would be the safest city in the world," Mr. Barr said. "If the mayor devoted half the time he is devoting to this lawsuit to fighting crime and helping citizens protect themselves, he might actually accomplish something worthwhile."

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the city's nonvoting representative in Congress, said Capitol Hill lawmakers should stay out of the fray.

"If they do [block the suit], they better prepare for a fight a big one," she said. "The only effect of keeping the District from suing is to deny us recovery against people who are being sued anyway. That would mean all the other jurisdictions would get recovery and we wouldn't. That would be mean spirited in the extreme."

In joining the suit, Washington became the 30th city to file such a claim, which comes as the Clinton administration weighs filing a similar federal suit.

Unlike other lawsuits filed in cities across the country, the District's case represents an entire jurisdiction, not a city within a state. City officials said that permits it to sue for Medicaid compensation. The city also has a rare "strict liability" law that requires assault-weapon manufacturers to pay damages regardless of how the firearm came to be used in the District.

Together, those matters distinguish the District's legal attack from the other 29, city lawyers said.

Judges in Miami and Bridgeport, Conn., threw out similar suits against gun makers, saying the cities had no legal right to claim damages. Instead, that is the prerogative of individuals, the judges held in separate rulings.

A Cincinnati judge also dismissed a suit that sought reimbursement for the costs of providing police, emergency, court and prison services in connection with shootings in the city, including suicides and accidental shootings as well as homicides. The judge said the suit was vague and unsupported by legal precedent.

Like other cases, the District accuses gun makers of recklessly marketing and selling firearms to persons who should not own them. That would apply to virtually everyone in the District because of the 1976 gun-control law that bans nearly all persons except law enforcement officers from owning weapons.

D.C. Corporation Counsel Robert Rigsby said the city has not yet put a price tag on all the gun-related deaths and injuries, but "it will be astronomical."

The attempt to recover Medicaid expenses is similar to the legal battle 46 states and the District waged against the tobacco industry. Cigarette makers settled the cases, a historic concession for an industry that successfully withstood an array of legal challenges for decades.

Among the gun manufacturers named in the city's suit is the Accokeek, Md.-based Beretta U.S.A. Corp.

Jeff Reh, general counsel for Beretta, said the city risks losing federal funds by pursuing the lawsuit.

"The District is in a unique position to suffer an immediate political attack for this," Mr. Reh said. The suit "is going to prove to be a waste of taxpayer funds."

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, also condemned the city's case and challenged Mr. Williams to join the call for greater prosecution of existing gun-control measures.

"Out of 2,000 violent crimes committed in 1998, only two people went to jail under all federal gun laws," Mr. LaPierre said during a speech Thursday to members of the Conservative Political Action Committee.

But the lawsuit's supporters said the city and its taxpayers shouldn't have to pick up the tab for criminals with guns.

"We hear of individuals who may have been carrying $2,000 in their wallet and gold chains around their necks," said D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat. "But when they were shot and they would end up in the hospital, rarely did they carry Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The average cost to treat that type of individual is $300,000. The city had to pay for that."

Mrs. Cropp said cars are legal but require strict licensing. She said guns should be similarly registered.

"I can't buy fireworks [in Virginia]. They're illegal because they are dangerous and they are really loud and bothersome," said council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. "But I can go into that same state and buy an AK-47 assault rifle and bullets, put it in my trunk and come back into the District. Isn't that absurd?"

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