03/29/2002

Citing Recent Crime Statistics, Jersey City Sues Gun Makers

by Robert Hanley, The New York Times

JERSEY CITY - Jersey City today became the 33rd governmental entity in the country since 1998 to sue the gun industry, charging that negligent sales practices have helped create a black market in weapons for criminals.

As he announced the lawsuit on the front steps of City Hall, Mayor Glenn D. Cunningham, a former Jersey City police captain, spoke of the "devastating impact" illegal handguns in the hands of drug dealers, gangsters and children have had on the quality of life in the city. In the coming court fight, he said, the city will be as persistent as an unmerciful gunman who keeps firing a weapon during a crime.

"We're going to keep shooting until we hit the gun manufacturers where it hurts," Mayor Cunningham said.

In 1996 and 1997, the lawsuit says, handguns were involved in a "significant percentage" of the 42 murders, 2,430 robberies and 2,325 aggravated assaults in Jersey City. The suit does not cite more current gun-related crimes.

Without providing specific figures, the lawsuit says Jersey City spent millions of dollars in recent years investigating and prosecuting crimes committed with illegal handguns, treating gunshot victims in public hospitals and providing increased security to keep guns out of schools. The suit asks that the industry be found liable and ordered to share in those costs. It cites several manufacturers and trade associations, including Smith & Wesson, Beretta U.S.A., Colt's Manufacturing and Glock Inc.

A Washington gun control group, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, joined the city in the suit. The Brady Center is now helping 26 city and county governments, including New York City, that have sued the industry in the past four years.

The center's legal director, Dennis Henigan, said during Mayor Cunningham's news conference that the gun industry had failed to take reasonable steps to curb what he called a lax distribution system helping to fuel a profitable illegal market in guns. He and other speakers argued that gun manufacturers sell weapons to dealers in Southern states with weak gun control laws, and that many of those guns are then bought in bulk by people who eventually sell them illegally in Northern states with tough control laws.

The suit argues that such practices lead to crime and thus make the gun industry a public nuisance, liable for the costs of preventing and fighting crimes.

In the past, gun rights advocates have sought to discount the public-nuisance legal strategy that Jersey City adopted today, contending that manufacturers cannot be held responsible for crimes resulting from misuse of their products.

Mr. Henigan, of the Brady Center, said today that the public-nuisance theory had been upheld recently by both a New Jersey trial court, in a lawsuit that Newark had filed against the gun industry, and an Illinois appeals court, in a case involving a Chicago police officer killed during a drug surveillance in 1998.

Jersey City's lawsuit was announced a day after Boston voluntarily dropped its suit against the gun industry, citing the expense of a trial. The Brady Center had helped Boston with its lawsuit, and Mr. Henigan today called Boston's decision frustrating and disappointing. But he said he hoped industry documents and information collected in the Boston case would be valuable to other pending cases.

Previously, only four of the municipal and county suits had been dismissed by the courts.

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