The president of the nation's largest lawyers' organization advocated stronger gun control measures, saying today that most Americans believe more can be done to prevent firearm violence.
"There will be instances like those that occurred in Atlanta and Alabama despite our best efforts to avoid it," Philip Anderson, president of the American Bar Association, said during the group's annual meeting. "But we can still do something about gun violence in our society."
On Thursday, three people were shot to death at two companies in Pelham, Ala. A week earlier, day trader Mark O. Barton shot nine people to death and injured 13 others at two Atlanta brokerage firms. Barton also killed his wife and two children; he later committed suicide as police closed in.
Anderson said it should be unlawful for teenagers to buy military assault weapons. He also expressed support for banning the importation of high-capacity ammunition clips and said the background check required for firearms sales by licensed gun dealers should apply to such sales at gun shows.
Background checks should take a minimum of three days, he said.
"National studies show that 80 percent of the people in America believe that we can do more than we are doing now and make it more difficult for children to buy guns. . . . There is no reason in the world why teenagers should be able to buy assault weapons," Anderson said.
He said the ABA has no policy on state efforts to bar cities from suing gun manufacturers over firearm violence, but that the group generally favors access to the courts.
"Personally, I believe that any entity, city or otherwise, that has a legitimate claim should be able to pursue it," he said.
Pointing to civil rights cases during the 1960s and more recent litigation over tobacco, he added, "The gun industry is another industry that it looks like the people will have to resort to the courts for relief if the legislatures don't act."
Anderson also accused the Immigration and Naturalization Service of failing to ensure adequate access to lawyers for aliens detained in county jails and other facilities not operated by the federal agency.
Such access is allowed for those being held in INS facilities, he said, but not for the 60 percent of detainees sent under contract to other facilities. He said the Justice Department has asked the ABA to help provide legal help to the detainees.
"We have been stonewalled for a year by the INS, and I assume the INS thinks it can put it off forever," Anderson said.
Also at the convention, lawyers who have defended famous clients debated the role of truth in the law.
"It's not as simple as finding the truth," said William Ginsburg, Monica S. Lewinsky's former lawyer.
"There is a sporting system of justice. Everybody wants to win," said Los Angeles lawyer Johnnie Cochran Jr., who won O.J. Simpson's acquittal on murder charges. For defense lawyers, he said, "you're there to protect the client."
What's a lawyer to do when a client confesses to a murder?
Moderator Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor, spun a tale of a man who stabbed a woman and then confessed to his lawyer or minister under a promise of secrecy. Such confidentiality is one of the oldest traditions of the U.S. legal system.
"Who would call the police?" Ogletree asked the panel.
"The victim is dead?" asked lawyer and author Ann H. Coulter, meaning the victim could not be helped by calling an ambulance.
"And you've asked me not to?" said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.
"And we're in our professional capacity?" asked Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
None of the lawyers or ministers said they would call the police, although several said they would try to persuade the man to turn himself in.
"How do we explain to the public what just happened?" Ogletree said. "Because of our professions we can do nothing. I have the ultimate power as a client to muzzle every one of you people."
Bright said that as a defense lawyer, "my responsibility is to make it clear to them . . . they don't have to confess to anybody."