Friday, July 25, 2003

Two months ago, the NAACP suffered an embarrassing defeat in a U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, where a federal jury rejected a lawsuit filed by the organization blaming gun manufacturers and distributors for urban gun violence. At the time, this newspaper warned that the presiding judge, Jack Weinstein — a liberal judicial activist — would take some step to undermine the jury verdict on behalf of the NAACP. On Monday, our concerns were borne out. Judge Weinstein issued a ruling in which he denounced gunmakers for engaging in “careless practices,” and held that the NAACP proved that its members suffered “relatively more harm from the nuisance created by the defendants through illegal availability of guns in New York.” But he dismissed the lawsuit on extremely narrow and technical grounds, stating that the NAACP had not shown that its members were “uniquely harmed” by illegal gun use.

Given what actually took place during the six-week-long trial, which ended May 14 with a jury verdict rejecting the NAACP’s case on virtually every substantive point, Judge Weinstein’s findings are simply bizarre. The NAACP had attempted to show that the 68 defendants’ marketing practices were responsible for gun violence. The companies rightly countered that the blame rested with the hoodlums who misused the guns to commit crimes, not businesses that made lawful sales to the public.

In the end, the jury agreed, finding that 45 of the companies were not culpable and deadlocking on the remaining 23. Judging from the weak case put forward by the NAACP, it came as no surprise that the jury ruled the way it did. In the trial, the NAACP attempted to use data compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms purporting to show that the gun dealers and manufacturers were disproportionately likely to have their guns used in crimes. NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume, et al. wanted to use the data to obtain a federal court injunction that would place new restrictions on the sale and manufacturing of handguns. When subject to careful statistical analysis from attorneys for the gun industry, however, the NAACP’s case fell apart. Perhaps the most damaging testimony came from Professor Gary Kleck, a criminologist who rebutted one of the NAACP’s central arguments: that criminals are obtaining their guns from firearms dealers (an industry that is already heavily regulated).

Unfortunately, as he demonstrated this week, Judge Weinstein is a man with an agenda, and he’s not going to let himself be encumbered by trivialities like a jury’s carefully reasoned findings of fact about the gun industry. On the positive side, his ruling is virtually certain to help supporters of congressional legislation, which passed the House in March, to block such frivolous lawsuits against gun makers. Sen. Larry Craig, Idaho Republican, has 54 co-sponsors of the Senate version, but will need six more to overcome a filibuster by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, perhaps Congress’ leading anti-gun ideologue. For now, Judge Weinstein has given Mr. Craig’s side a perfect illustration of the kind of judicial activism that sorely needs to be reined in.

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