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Chicago Sues Gun Makers and Sellers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Accelerating a legal campaign against the gun industry, the city of Chicago and Cook County filed a sweeping lawsuit Thursday against 38 firearms manufacturers, distributors and dealers, accusing them of illegally flooding the city with guns they know will be used in gang killings and other crimes.

The $433-million lawsuit makes Chicago the second major city after New Orleans to sue the handgun industry, which like Big Tobacco is the target of government lawsuits. The involvement of the nation’s third-largest city and the broad legal theories advanced in its suit are likely to draw more cities into the legal assault.

Indeed, a spokesman for a leading industry group said such suits could doom the domestic handgun industry because gun makers “cannot afford to fight these cases in 30 or 40 jurisdictions,” even though they could prevail on the merits.

Chicago has strict laws against handgun ownership, and the suit contends that gun makers saturate outlying areas with more weapons than could possibly be sold to legal buyers, and know that thousands will be purchased for use in Chicago, including by gang members and crooks.

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The lawsuit is based in part on the results of an undercover investigation dubbed Operation Gunsmoke, which was revealed at an elaborate news briefing Thursday. Teams of city police--posing as street gang members, motorcycle outlaws and soldiers of fortune--bought scores of guns from a dozen suburban gun stores and made it clear the guns would be used in Chicago to settle a score or “take care of business” on the street.

The 12 gun stores were named as defendants, along with four firearms distributors and 22 manufacturers. Among the manufacturers are six Southern California firms that make the inexpensive handguns known as Saturday night specials.

“Gun manufacturers and retailers know exactly what they’re doing,” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said. “If money is the only language they understand, then money is the language we will use to make them understand that they have no business in Chicago.”

The complaint called $433 million a “conservative estimate” of expenses incurred since 1994 in Chicago and Cook County in responding to gun violence, including costs of police, hospital care and jails.

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Along with financial damages, the suit seeks an injunction that would require manufacturers to train and monitor the sales practices of gun retailers.

Industry officials condemned the suit. “You don’t sue the manufacturers of lawful, non-defective products for criminal acts of persons beyond their control,” said Stephen L. Sanetti, general counsel of Southport, Conn.-based defendant Sturm, Ruger & Co., one of the country’s biggest gun producers. “We arm the police and licensed citizens to protect themselves. We don’t want to see the bad guys armed, but how can we prevent that?”

“That this industry should somehow have established its own private police force to shadow every gun buyer is ludicrous,” said Jack Adkins, director of operations for the American Shooting Sports Council. “By filing the suits, the mayors are admitting their own failure to protect their citizens.”

But Adkins, who warned that multiple suits by cities could imperil the industry’s survival, noted that many gun manufacturers are small and privately owned and unable to withstand a long legal siege.

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Los Angeles is one of a number of cities whose officials are considering anti-gun litigation. City Atty. James K. Hahn told The Times last week that it is “certainly our intention to file something against the gun manufacturers,” and added that his staff is researching the matter. A resolution pending before the City Council asks Hahn to attempt to coordinate his efforts with neighboring cities and Los Angeles County.

According to the lawsuit, guns made by two Southland firms--Lorcin Engineering of Mira Loma and Bryco Arms of Costa Mesa--were seized by Chicago police more often than those of any other producer. It said at least 4,482 Brycos and at least 3,933 Lorcins illegally used in Chicago were seized over the 4 1/2-year period ended June 30.

Bruce Jennings, whose family owns Bryco and who is president of Jennings Firearms, a distributor also named in the suit, condemned the suit as an effort “to disarm the American public.”

Chicago and New Orleans, which filed its case two weeks ago, are pursuing widely divergent legal theories--and in the same way, new cities entering the fray are likely to tailor their complaints to local product liability and gun control laws.

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New Orleans filed a narrower product liability suit, accusing firearms makers of failing to incorporate safety features to prevent their guns from being fired by unauthorized people, curious children, despondent teenagers and criminals who obtain the guns through theft. The suit contends that such “personalized” weapons could have prevented thousands of deaths.

Gun industry officials say the technology needed to provide such guns is still being developed, and that requiring it now would compromise the reliability and safety of guns.

Chicago, which banned possession of handguns in 1983, accuses gun makers and retailers of creating a public nuisance by facilitating the flow of handguns into the city, “where they often are used in the commission of crimes, including crimes . . . in which residents of Chicago are killed, maimed or terrorized.” According to the complaint, more than 17,500 violent crimes, including 570 homicides, were committed with guns in Chicago last year.

Nationwide, more than 34,000 people were killed by gunfire in 1996, according to Justice Department statistics.

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The 74-page complaint provides a detailed description of Operation Gunsmoke, in which undercover police allegedly bought guns with ease despite tipping off store clerks that the guns were to be used in Chicago for nefarious purposes.

In one sale in August, an undercover officer had no problem buying guns despite telling the clerk that police had confiscated one of his shotguns the night before and that “he had business to tend to,” the complaint said.

In another instance, an officer allegedly told the clerk during the sale that he had “figured out who had ‘ratted me out’ and that he had to ‘settle up with him.’ ”

Other clerks allegedly coached officers on how to avoid scrutiny for multiple-gun buys by staggering the purchases over a few days.

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The complaint also detailed numerous blatant examples of “straw” purchases, in which people allowed to purchase guns buy them for people who cannot. In Illinois, gun purchasers are required to have a firearms owner’s identification card. In some cases, an investigator with a card and another without one would enter a store together and attempt to buy guns.

According to the complaint, clerks typically refused a direct sale to the officer without a card, but sold the guns he requested to the other officer--even watching the illegal buyer count out the money to reimburse his partner.


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