When Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center appeared last year before Congress opposing any legislative tort reforms to stop junk litigation aimed at bankrupting the firearm industry, she cited a 1996 Ohio decision under which “a gun show promoter was held liable for injuries inflicted by two teenagers who had stolen weapons from his event.”
To emphasize her case against legislation designed to curb such lawsuits, she detailed the conduct of the “boys” at the January 1992 gun show and immediately afterwards. “[O]nce inside, the boys began stealing firearms … . One boy stole a .25 pistol. Another took two handguns … they departed for the home of one of the boys. There, they inhaled gasoline fumes. They then decided to break into cars parked along the street. Discovering a car with keys, they took the car. When it began to snow, they began purposely sliding the car into trash cans for amusement.” She said a witness … approached the crashed stolen car after the “boys” lost control. “One of the boys fired at him, shooting him twice.” The man was paralyzed. It was a tragedy.
But for the horrendous acts of these juvenile criminals-substance abusers, gun thieves, car thieves, vandals, and attempted murderers-a gun show promoter with no connection to them other than being their victim was sued and forced by the courts to pay the price.
Rand tried to convince the members of U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin’s (D-La.) Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection that this kind of tortured legal decision-punishing people for the unrelated criminal conduct of third parties-is a good thing, good for America. The committee didn’t buy it. The vast majority of judges don’t buy it. And the American people don’t buy it.
To date, 33 lawsuits have been filed by big-city machine politicians with the help of contingency-fee trial lawyers. Most of these suits have been dismissed-without merit-but they just keep coming. This legal assault is manipulated by gun control advocates who would have their defeats in the halls of legislatures replaced with private victories proclaimed by courts. Brady Campaign (Handgun Control, Inc.) lawyers claim major roles in a majority of these tort actions.
The question of the legal fee bleed-out of industry was raised by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Co.) in an exchange with Jeff Reh, General Counsel to Beretta USA. The Congresswoman asked, “And have you had to pay out anything on the lawsuits?” Reh answered that it amounted to “millions”-in costs and legal fees. Representative DeGette then asked, “Have you ever had to pay out any judgments?” and Reh responded, “Not a penny.”
Elisa Barnes, who received the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice “Lawyer of the Year Award” for her suit claiming that the federally regulated firearm industry was responsible for illegal gun traffic practiced by the criminal underclass in New York, testified against the proposed tort reforms. She was asked about lawsuits piled on lawsuits where firearm industry plaintiffs continue to lose. “I would disagree that these suits are unsuccessful. Some have been dismissed, and some are proceeding. And I would go back to the example of the tobacco litigation, and how many cases did tobacco litigants lose before they finally won one … and that is the way that the tort system works.” (emphasis added)
Walter K. Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, makes a critical point in his new book, Rule of Lawyers, that “the public relations campaign on behalf of the municipal gun suits actually made a point of stressing their insincerity” over the true purposes of litigation.
“It used to be that attorneys would go to some lengths to deny the imputation that they had filed a lawsuit for merely tactical reasons, just to strong-arm their adversaries into some unrelated concession, without actually intending to get the ‘relief’ they were asking for.” And it was unethical to force litigation costs on defendants to gain a tactical advantage. That is precisely why the tort system-especially as it applies to the slow destruction of the lawful firearm industry-must be reformed. Fairness and equity demand that this abuse be stopped cold. To that end, H.R. 1036-introduced by U. S. Representatives Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) and Chris John (D-La.)-is supported by a bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives. A remarkable 243 members have signed on as original co-sponsors to date.
On the other side of the Hill, U.S. Senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) have introduced S. 659 with 51 co-sponsors to date. Even with this kind of majority bipartisan support, enactment is no sure thing. The process is a long, bumpy road, and every anti-gun-rights group allied with fat-cat trial lawyers will be working to sabotage this needed change in the law.
Only you and I and our friends and families can assure that the line is held and that this legislation is signed into law. Please write, e-mail, call or contact your U.S. Congressman and Senators. Tell them to support H.R. 1036 or S. 659 when it comes before them.
Copyright National Rifle Association of America May 2003
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