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New Orleans Is Expected to Sue Gun Manufacturers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first major product liability and negligence suit by a local government against the U.S. gun industry is expected to be filed in New Orleans today, drawing heavily on the tactics and potent legal resources used against the tobacco industry in recent years.

The campaign is aiming to prove that handgun makers bear responsibility for an epidemic of gun violence in the nation’s cities, just as cigarette makers were charged with the medical woes of their customers.

Gun makers, the suit will claim, are liable because they failed to incorporate safety technology to prevent accidental shootings and because they saturate the U.S. market with more guns than could possibly be bought by legal purchasers, assuring that tens of thousands will wind up in the hands of juveniles and crooks.

The suit will name 10 gun manufacturers, including five Southern California firms that dominate the market for the cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials, said John Coale, a Washington, D.C., attorney who is part of a nationwide consortium of law firms that has filed two dozen class-action suits against tobacco companies.

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The suit will be announced today by New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, but the case is just the first in what will be a series to be filed in major cities over the next few months with the help of the alliance of law firms and the National Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, Coale said. The other cities were not identified.

“We’re going to do to this what we did to tobacco,” he said. “It’s going to be a very large war.”

The alliance of law firms, called the Castano group for the lead plaintiff in one anti-tobacco case, has filed class-action suits against cigarette makers on behalf of millions of allegedly addicted smokers. The cases are pending in various states.

Among the firms to be named in the gun suit are inexpensive-handgun producers Lorcin Engineering, Bryco Arms, Jennings Inc., Phoenix Arms and Davis Industries, firms that gun control advocates call the “Ring of Fire” companies because their plants partly encircle Los Angeles.

An attorney for Lorcin, which is based in Mira Loma, declined to comment; a call to Bryco, of Costa Mesa, was not returned.

An official with a firearms trade association called the suit “a shameful use of the courts.”

Jack Adkins, director of operations for the Atlanta-based American Shooting Sports Council, said he could not address the specifics of the case before he sees it. But he called it an attempt “to shift responsibility for the illegal use of our products.”

After tobacco and firearms, “certainly the alcohol industry is just around the corner for them as a target,” Adkins said.

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About 35,000 Americans die from gunfire each year, and in several states, including California, authorities say the death toll from firearms exceeds that from auto accidents. Most of the deaths result from street violence, although in 1995, accidental shootings of children and teen suicides accounted for nearly 1,900 deaths nationwide.

“It’s an absurdity that our inner cities are armed camps,” Coale said. “There’s no reason for the Saturday night specials and the assault weapons except to kill human beings, and the companies know this.”

Like the tobacco companies, gun manufacturers have largely been exempted from federal regulation because of their political influence. Therefore, in seeking to change the manufacturing and marketing practices of the $2-billion firearms industry, gun control groups increasingly have pinned their hopes on civil litigation--but with no real victories and few actual filings to show for it.

Among the biggest cases, a wrongful-death trial against Beretta USA stemming from the accidental shooting of 15-year-old Kenzo Dix has ended its third week in Oakland. And a novel suit against the gun industry is expected to go to trial early next year in New York--with the help of a $300,000 grant from a foundation headed by financier George Soros.

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However, the involvement of the well-heeled Castano firms--which have made a fortune suing asbestos companies and other makers of hazardous products--could up the ante considerably.

In recent months, officials in Chicago and Philadelphia have publicly debated the merits of suing firearms makers, but New Orleans’ plans and the Castano involvement had been a well-kept secret.

Whether Los Angeles is considering following the lead of New Orleans was not immediately known. Several calls to the office of City Attorney James Hahn were not returned Thursday.


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