A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit filed by the D.C. government and victims of gun violence against the nation's major firearms makers and distributors, dealing a blow to city officials and gun control advocates.
In the first case of its kind in the District, Judge Cheryl M. Long ruled that the lawsuit was so fundamentally flawed and unpersuasive that it failed to meet the standard for moving forward. The judge tossed out claims to hold the gun industry accountable as a "public nuisance" and rejected the D.C. government's argument that it was entitled to be reimbursed for police work, Medicaid costs and other gun-related expenses.
The judge granted a motion filed on behalf of 25 companies to toss out the suit, saying the case was "burdened with many layers of legal deficiencies." The city's lawyers, she said, failed to show how actions of gun makers and distributors could be tied to specific acts of violence. Also, the city exceeded the reach of nuisance and other laws, she said.
"This is not a close question," Long wrote in a 103-page opinion.
The case was among more than two dozen lawsuits pursued nationwide by cities and the NAACP against the gun industry in recent years. When it was filed in January 2000, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and other top officials joined religious leaders and gun control advocates in calling the litigation a way to help stop the spread of guns in a city that has banned them for more than two decades. The suit sought millions of dollars in damages.
The plaintiffs included Bryant Lawson, a former track star who was shot and paralyzed in January 1997; the father of Mary Caitrin Mahoney, the manager of a Starbucks coffee shop who was slain along with two other employees in July 1997; and relatives of Helen Foster-El, a grandmother shot in the back in June 1999.
Bennett Rushkoff, senior counsel in the Office of the D.C. Corporation Counsel, said the city's legal arm is "studying the decision closely" to decide whether to appeal.
The National Rifle Association hailed the court's decision as "a big victory for the integrity of our legal system," said Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
LaPierre called the wave of municipal suits "a flagrant abuse" of the courts.
Suing gun manufacturers for acts committed by criminals, he said, is akin to suing car manufacturers if a criminal uses a car to drive to a bank to commit a robbery. He noted that about 30 states have passed laws granting the firearms industry immunity from similar lawsuits. Many judges have tossed out cases elsewhere, he said.
But Dennis Henigan, legal director at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which aided the D.C. government, said cases that were dismissed by judges in Chicago and Cincinnati were revived later on appeal. "We have long thought that these issues ultimately will be decided by the appellate courts," he said.
Henigan, who expressed disappointment with Long's ruling, said only seven of the suits filed against the gun industry have ended unfavorably for the cities that filed them. The other cases are in various stages of proceedings, he said.
In the District, where more than 2,500 people were killed by guns during the 1990s, the city targeted defendants including Beretta USA Corp., Colt's Manufacturing, Smith & Wesson and Strum, Ruger & Co. Inc.
The city based its suit in part on the D.C. Assault Weapons Manufacturing Strict Liability Act of 1990. That law, one of the few of its kind in the nation, says that any company that makes, sells or distributes a machine gun or an assault weapon is liable for direct and indirect injuries caused by those weapons. But Long ruled that the city exceeded its legal authority by attempting to use the law in such a sweeping way.