THE ANNOUNCEMENT by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo that his agency would assist public housing authorities in suing handgun manufacturers is disquieting even for those who, like us, strongly support rigorous controls on handguns. Mr. Cuomo's objective -- to do something about the gun violence that has devastated public housing projects -- is laudable. But federally organized litigation seems the wrong vehicle for the change.
The proposed suit has the problems that afflict other efforts to hold gunmakers responsible for the destruction their products are designed to cause. Moreover, the federal government has an obvious alternative to reduce handgun violence. That is to pass comprehensive gun-control legislation. That Congress has not been willing to do so is no license for the administration to use the courts as an alternative policymaking vehicle.
Making the proposed suit still stranger is the fact that the federal government itself is not even going to be a party to it. Normally the government litigates through the Justice Department. Here, HUD is organizing plaintiffs -- the federally funded authorities that run public housing around the country -- for a national class action in which the government itself has no direct role. HUD is doing so with the aim not of winning the suit but of pressuring the industry into pre-litigation settlement. What business does the federal government have, if it is not willing to file a suit on behalf of the United States, ginning up surrogate plaintiffs with a clearer cause of action?
The answer, HUD officials argue, is that the agency oversees public housing authorities and routinely advises them on litigation matters. Why should gun litigation be different -- particularly given the agency's statutory responsibility to ensure that public housing is safe? Mr. Cuomo contends that the federal role will not be in organizing the suit but in joining and unifying a bandwagon that cities have already set in motion. Only federal leadership in negotiations, he contends, can bring about a settlement of the dozens of suits already pending.
HUD's efforts may well bring useful concessions by the manufacturers. And we do not preclude the possibility that some tactics by the gun manufacturers have crossed lines that make them vulnerable to court actions. But it nonetheless seems wrong for an agency of the federal government to organize other plaintiffs to put pressure on an industry -- even a distasteful industry -- to achieve policy results the administration has not been able to achieve through normal legislation or regulation. It is an abuse of a valuable system, one that could make it less valuable as people come to view the legal system as nothing more than an arm of policymakers. The right way to get guns under control is to muster the political will to do it, not to ask the courts to do it instead.