The Clinton administration plans for the first time to intervene in litigation against the gun industry, a move to pressure manufacturers to help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and to reduce accidental shootings, officials said yesterday.
The decision could dramatically strengthen the hand of numerous cities that have sued or threatened to sue firearms manufacturers, seeking redress for the public costs of gun violence. Federal officials will begin pressing the manufacturers to settle those lawsuits by making a variety of concessions, such as preventing "straw purchasers" from buying large quantities of firearms--a popular method for convicted felons to obtain new guns.
If the gunmakers don't agree, the administration says it is ready with a powerful weapon similar to one it is using against the tobacco industry: a massive lawsuit on behalf of the nation's 3,191 public housing authorities and their 3.25 million residents.
"If we cannot come up with a satisfactory resolution" through negotiations, "HUD would bring a class action suit on behalf of public housing authorities," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo said in an interview yesterday. "I think it's a clear signal to the manufacturers that enough is enough. The status quo is unacceptable."
To some degree, the threatened litigation could allow the Clinton administration to use the courts to achieve gun control measures that have failed in Congress. The architects of the current wave of litigation against gun manufacturers are openly seeking quasi-legislative remedies: They want gunmakers to agree to distribute their products only to dealers who will not sell at gun shows; not to sell an individual more than one gun at a time; not to sell more than one gun a month to a buyer; and to cut off any dealers who have a disproportionate number of guns traced to crimes.
Other concessions being sought include manufacturers including safety locks on new guns; mechanisms that keep a gun from firing when the magazine is removed; and technology that personalizes guns so that only the owners may fire them.
Gun ownership advocates say there already are plenty of laws on the books, including bans on gun sales to minors and convicted felons, and further litigation is unnecessary and unfair.
"The federal government licenses people to make and sell guns," said James P. Dorr, an attorney for several gun companies. "These are products that are regulated by the government. To sue someone they have authorized to sell those products has no basis in the law."
However, some manufacturers have been involved in periodic, so far unsuccessful negotiations to settle such lawsuits out of court.
Lawyers for the cities say several courts have ruled that makers of "inherently dangerous products," such as guns, can't ignore what happens once the products leave their plants and go to retailers.
"Because the industry and manufacturers take no action to curb irresponsible sales by retailers, you have a situation by which the distribution system itself aids and abets criminal conduct," said Dennis Henigan, legal director for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, a party in the ongoing negotiations with manufacturers.
The federal government is basing its intervention on its association with the nation's public housing authorities, some of which are directly controlled by HUD. Cuomo said public housing residents suffer disproportionately from handgun violence, and "our primary motivation is to stop the harm, stop the pain and suffering. We would be looking for design changes that would make guns safer. . . . We want the manufacturers to stop dealing with gun agents who are known to be selling guns used in crimes."
Pressure on the gun manufacturers has been mounting in recent weeks on various fronts. Last week in New York, the gun companies asked that a lawsuit filed against them by the NAACP be stayed until there is a decision on whether to overturn what is known as the Hamilton case. Hamilton is the landmark case in which a jury held some gun companies responsible for negligent marketing. The judge denied the stay. In addition, many insurers of gun companies have notified their clients that they will not pay for their legal defense.
"The administration's intervention in the cities' cases will quicken the pace for settlement," said Josh Horwitz, director of the Firearms Litigation Clearinghouse, which is supporting the lawsuits against the companies.
While Attorney General Janet Reno has been an outspoken advocate of tougher federal gun laws, a Justice Department official said yesterday that department officials have not been involved in discussions regarding a possible lawsuit by the housing authorities against gun manufacturers. Even though senior HUD officials are convinced that the housing authorities across the country have a viable legal case, they are being encouraged to continue their negotiations with gun manufacturers because "a comprehensive negotiated settlement would be far superior to any protracted litigation," a Justice official said.
Staff writers Sharon Walsh and David A. Vise contributed to this report.