The NAACP announced plans today to expand the wave of litigation targeting gunmakers by filing a federal lawsuit alleging that the industry recklessly distributes its product and asking the court to place broad controls on the sale of handguns.
NAACP attorneys said the suit will follow the legal strategy used in many of the more than two dozen lawsuits brought recently by cities and individuals who argue that gunmakers foster the underground market in firearms through negligent distribution practices and deliberate oversupply. But rather than seeking monetary damages, this suit hopes to break new ground by asking the court to impose strict gun controls that in the past have been rejected by Congress and many state legislatures.
Among the remedies the NAACP plans to seek in the suit are the elimination of sales at gun shows, a limit on the number of guns that can be sold in one transaction and unprecedented restrictions on who can sell guns.
The planned lawsuit builds on the landmark verdict reached by a Brooklyn jury that in February found the gun industry legally at fault for not doing more to prevent criminals from buying guns. The jury in that case, brought by the survivors of homicide victims, found nine gun manufacturers negligent. Attorneys for the NAACP said at least 85 handgun manufacturers, distributors and importers will be named as defendants in the case, which they said would be filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn by Friday.
"This is the logical next step," said Denise M. Dunleavy, a New York lawyer who is lead attorney for the NAACP. "We want the court to order changes in the gun industry."
Gun industry officials called the NAACP's proposed lawsuit a misguided step that, even if successful, would have little effect on crime.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume announced the civil rights group's intention to file suit during a speech at the group's 90th annual convention here. In his remarks, Mfume blasted the gun industry for playing a part in turning many communities into "war zones."
"The fact that the illegal trafficking of firearms disproportionately affects minority communities in this country is indisputable," he said. "Too many of us have sadly become so accustomed to the prevalence of firearms in our neighborhoods that we are no longer shocked at the sound of gunfire outside our front doors. This is simply unacceptable."
Federal statistics show that African American males between the ages of 15 and 24 are almost five times more likely to be injured by guns than young white males. And firearm homicides have been among the top two causes of death for young African American males for the past three decades.
NAACP officials believe those facts give the NAACP standing to bring its lawsuit. "The gun industry has refused to take even basic measures to keep criminals and prohibited persons from obtaining firearms," Mfume said.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said the NAACP wants "the manufacturer of a lawful product held responsible for the third-party criminal misuse of their product."
"If that theory of law is upheld in America, they'll never manufacture another car, the pharmaceutical industry would be on the chopping block, as would the maker of any product misused to commit a crime," LaPierre said.
NAACP officials, however, said their lawsuit is one way to bring control to a gun industry that is largely unregulated.
There are an estimated 250 million guns in America, and 4.5 million new ones are added to the supply each year. Under federal law, the nation's 100,000 licensed gun dealers are subject to strict regulation. They must be fingerprinted, register with the local police and have legitimate premises. Their customers are subject to criminal background checks and records must be kept of the sale.
For the most part, this system keeps most dealers from putting guns directly into the hands of criminals. A study of federal firearms data released last month found that just 1 percent of the nation's 100,000 federally licensed gun dealers sold nearly half of the guns used in crimes last year.
But 4.5 million guns change hands each year through sales at flea markets, in private homes, through classified ads and over the Internet. This portion of the gun market is largely unregulated, as few states require unlicensed dealers to keep records or conduct background checks on their customers.
Guns used in some of the country's most highly publicized killings moved through this so-called secondary market. Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, the white supremacist who killed two men and wounded nine others before killing himself in a rampage earlier this month, bought his two guns from an unlicensed dealer after being turned away by a licensed gun store. The person who sold Smith his guns had purchased 65 guns from a licensed dealer.
Also, the girlfriend of one of the teenage killers in the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado bought three of the guns used in the attack at a gun show.
A 1994 national survey of gun owners done by the Police Foundation found that 40 percent of gun owners had obtained a gun through some source other than a regulated gun store or pawnshop. The suit being brought by the NAACP seeks to use the courts to force gunmakers to do more to regulate the flow of those weapons.
In addition to seeking new restrictions on the sale of guns, the lawsuit aims to force manufacturers to sell guns complete with gun locks and other safety devices. The group also wants manufacturers to be prohibited from supplying retailers who sell to people who become involved in more than a certain number of criminal investigations.
"The manufacturers control the distribution process," Dunleavy said. "They have the power to cut off their product from shoddy distributors."
CAPTION: NAACP's Kweisi Mfume said, "The gun industry has refused to take even basic measures to keep criminals . . . from obtaining firearms."