Friday, November 19, 2004

The Illinois Supreme Court yesterday refused to hold firearms manufacturers responsible for Chicago street violence or of knowingly supplying guns to criminals — a decision that could affect the filing of future lawsuits.

The city of Chicago sued 18 gun manufacturers, four distributors and 11 dealers — asserting the firearms industry is liable for causing a “public nuisance” — and demanded $433 million for health care costs and city emergency expenses.

Writing for the court, Justice Rita Garman said the city’s claims are “the result of numerous unforeseeable intervening criminal acts by third parties not under defendant’s control.”

“The mere fact that defendants’ conduct in their plants, offices, and stores puts guns into the stream of commerce does not state a claim for public nuisance,” Justice Garman said. “It is the presence and use of the guns within the City of Chicago that constitutes the alleged nuisance, not the activities at the defendants’ various places of business.”

In refusing to define public nuisance as it relates to weapons, the court expressed a philosophy of judicial restraint. “Any change of this magnitude in the law affecting a highly regulated industry must be the work of the legislature, brought about by the political process, not the work of the courts,” the decision said.

Gun rights advocates hailed the decision as the final defeat of “abusive lawsuits” they say are intended to drive U.S. firearms manufacturers out of business.

“These cases aren’t designed to win,” said Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. “It’s a sinister abuse of the legal system aimed at bankrupting a lawful industry.”

The manufacturers targeted in such lawsuits “also make firearms for police officers and the military,” Mr. Cox said. “Having these companies shut down and jobs sent overseas and then relying on foreign countries to produce military firearms is reckless at best, but unfortunately, that will be the result of these politically motivated lawsuits.”

Similar cases are pending in Ohio, New York, and Indiana, and 28 such lawsuits have been defeated in other states including Louisiana, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, Georgia and Pennsylvania, said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation.

Pro-gun groups are lobbying Congress to pass legislation protecting firearm manufacturers from such lawsuits. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act would end liability by manufacturers and sellers of firearms for criminal misuse of lawfully sold weapons.

“Chicago’s case is just the latest example of why Congress must act swiftly to enact common-sense legal reform to end once and for all these predatory suits,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Yesterday’s state court decision was “very disheartening in this day and age,” Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley told the Associated Press. “More drug dealers and gangbangers are buying more guns. It has nothing to do with the Constitution, and it has nothing to do with hunters and sportsmen and collectors. It’s a safety issue.”

The Chicago lawsuit was first filed in November 1998 and was dismissed by an Illinois circuit court in April 1999, but that dismissal was overturned by a state appellate court in March 2000.

Chicago sued top firearms manufacturers — including Smith & Wesson, Beretta USA Corp., and Strum Ruger & Co. Inc. —and what the city called a “core group of irresponsible dealers” who attract the business of criminals. The gun industry “intentionally and recklessly causes thousands of illegal firearms to end up in Chicago,” the city said.

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