The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the country’s oldest and largest civil rights group, on Friday joined the mounting legal assault on handgun makers with a sweeping federal lawsuit that seeks to combat the flow of firearms to juveniles and crooks.
In a complaint condemning the industry for a “complete absence of civic responsibility,” the NAACP said gun violence disproportionately hurts African Americans, including its members, and is encouraged by firearms makers flooding the market with guns and then taking a “ ‘hear-no-evil, see-no-evil’ approach” to their distribution and sale.
The result is an “underground handgun market,” where “criminals, juveniles [and] the mentally ill . . . can and do quickly and easily obtain . . . lethal weapons,” according to the suit filed in federal court in Brooklyn, New York.
Gun firms denied the allegations. “We’re all concerned about firearms violence, but I think fundamentally the suit is wrong,” said James Dorr, a Chicago lawyer who represents leading handgun makers Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Smith & Wesson Corp. Using “the court to legislate . . . is simply wrong under our system of government,” Dorr said.
But with a half-million members in 2,200 chapters, the NAACP becomes a powerful ally for big city prosecutors and mayors who until now have led the anti-gun crusade.
During the last nine months, 23 cities and counties have sued handgun makers, including the cities of Los Angeles, Compton, West Hollywood, San Francisco and four other California municipalities.
Like the cities, the NAACP accused the industry of negligent marketing practices and failing to incorporate safety devices to prevent accidental shootings. But unlike the cities, which seek to recover police and medical expenses from gun crimes, the NAACP suit does not request monetary damages.
“This is clearly not about money,” said Josh M. Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence and co-counsel in the case. “This is saying, ‘What are the activities that the gun industry can do to reduce the chance that their firearms will end up in the hands of criminals and youth?’ ”
The suit seeks a court order requiring that gun makers actively supervise the sales practices of firearms distributors and retailers. Among other things, they would be required to supply guns only to dealers who operate from a fixed retail location, agree not to sell at gun shows and agree not to sell more than one gun to the same person in any 30-day period.
Gun firms also would have to contribute to a fund for education and supervision of the country’s 16,000 gun retailers.
In filing the suit in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, attorneys for the NAACP are returning to the same venue where they scored a landmark victory in February when a jury ordered three gun makers to pay more than $500,000 to a shooting victim. Before the precedent-setting case, known as Hamilton vs. Accu-Tek, gun makers had paid settlements and judgments when defective guns misfired, but had never been held liable for the criminal misuse of their products. That verdict is being appealed.
The attorneys, including New York firm Weitz & Luxenberg and solo practitioner Elisa Barnes, will seek assignment of the case to U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who presided in the Hamilton case and is regarded as more receptive than most federal judges to novel legal theories.
With annual sales of about $400 million divided among dozens of manufacturers, the handgun industry is smaller, weaker and more decentralized than such popular legal targets as the tobacco industry.
And in one tell-tale sign of financial strain, Davis Industries, a Chino-based producer of inexpensive guns known as Saturday night specials, in May filed for bankruptcy reorganization in Riverside.
Meanwhile, gun rights groups, led by the National Rifle Assn., have been working in state legislatures to undermine the suits. At their urging, lawmakers in 13 mostly rural states have passed laws banning their cities from suing gun makers. Similar bills are pending in at least 11 more states.
In California, where the momentum is running in the opposite direction, lawmakers earlier this week passed the nation’s toughest assault weapons law and are expected to approve other gun control measures during the current legislative session.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume noted Friday in a statement that state bans on municipal lawsuits will not keep his group from going forward. “No state legislature can prevent us from suing the industry,” he said. “The NRA has no power over the NAACP.”
Gun makers and their supporters vehemently argue that the suits represent an improper attempt to legislate through the courts. For their part, gun control groups acknowledge turning to the courts because Congress and state legislatures have done little about gun violence.