The D.C. government yesterday joined a legion of cities targeting the nation's major gun makers and distributors, filing a lawsuit that seeks tens of millions of dollars in damages for the "public nuisance" and carnage created by the sale of illegal weapons.
The District's suit, modeled after litigation filed by 29 other jurisdictions across the country, contends that the gun industry shares responsibility for the violence that has taken place on urban streets and seeks reimbursement for police work, Medicaid care and other medical costs for victims and a host of other gun-related expenses.
The cases have been attacked by the leading gunmakers and trade groups, which say the industry is being made a scapegoat for lax law enforcement and acts committed by criminals. The D.C. government is the first in the region to join the legal fray, which began in 1998 when the cities of New Orleans and Chicago filed suits.
"We're supposed to have the toughest gun prohibitions in the nation, and yet our streets are flooded with guns," said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), noting that handguns have been banned in the District for 23 years. "Every day, new guns come into our city from sources in Maryland and from sources in Virginia. It's illegal. It's dangerous. It's entirely preventable, and yet it's happening."
Williams, flanked by Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), clergy leaders and other officials, said the suit is designed to make the gun industry pay for years of deadly negligence and reform its marketing practices. "We're asking the industry to adopt responsible business practices given the dangerousness of the product that they're selling," he said.
The anti-gun forces have suffered a series of legal setbacks in recent months, with judges throwing out lawsuits filed by Cincinnati, Bridgeport, Conn., and Miami-Dade County. The judges in Connecticut and Florida found that the governments lacked legal standing because they did not suffer any direct injuries from guns. In Ohio, a judge ruled that criminals, not gunmakers, are responsible for shootings.
All three dismissals are being appealed, said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. He contrasted those decisions with one by an Atlanta judge, who has permitted that city's case to move forward.
The District's suit was filed in D.C. Superior Court against 23 gun manufacturers and two distributors. The case was developed by government lawyers with assistance from the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering law firm.
Besides the D.C. government, the case seeks damages on behalf of Bryant Lawson, 21, a former track star who was shot and paralyzed in January 1997 near his Northeast Washington home. Lawyers said they plan to add other D.C. residents to the case and have recruited clergy leaders to help them locate victims and families.
Advocates for the gun industry predicted the D.C. suit will fall apart.
"I think these cases are all headed for dismissals and that the dismissals will be upheld," said Anne Kimball, a Chicago lawyer who represents gunmakers Smith & Wesson Corp. and Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc., defendants in the D.C. case and other suits.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said the suit was a "cowardly solution" to a crime problem and no substitute for stricter enforcement of existing gun laws. "I just think it's show, and it's sad," he said.
That view was echoed by Bob Delfay, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "The industry feels very strongly that it not only adheres to federal, state and local regulations but goes beyond them in attempts to assist law enforcement," he said. "A judge who does his job will throw this case out."
The gun industry isn't the only potential obstacle. Unlike Los Angeles, Cleveland, Boston and other cities in court, the District must contend with Congress, which oversees its budget. Congress in the past has stepped in to prevent the city from spending money on a voting rights lawsuit, blocked a medical marijuana initiative from taking law, and is now threatening to stop the gun case in its tracks.
The District "has no right to attempt to dictate national policy on firearms by filing an utterly frivolous lawsuit against gun manufacturers," said Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), who led Congress's effort against the marijuana law.
D.C. Corporation Counsel Robert R. Rigsby said he is confident the case will achieve its intended results. "I can only think about getting these guns off the street," he said.
The District's suit is framed upon three core legal premises.
The first, unique to the District, is a 1990 law that holds gun manufacturers and dealers strictly liable for injuries caused by assault weapons and those capable of holding more than 12 rounds at a time. This is a far lighter legal burden than proving negligence. The D.C. government says this law clears the way for it to collect damages for expenses it has incurred from gun violence, including victims' hospital care.
Secondly, like Chicago and other cities, D.C. contends gunmakers and distributors negligently "failed to exercise reasonable care in marketing and distributing their firearms." Even though the District bars handguns, weapons have remained plentiful because of such practices as sales to "straw purchasers," buyers who then sell the guns to people who don't qualify to own them, the lawsuit said.
Finally, like Chicago, the city contends that the gun industry "created and maintained an ongoing public nuisance" that has undermined crime-fighting efforts.
The mix of legal issues is meant to capture acts committed by all kinds of firearms. The suit provides a chronicle of gun-related violence, noting that guns were used in more than 2,000 D.C. homicides from 1992 through 1998 and in thousands of robberies, assaults and other crimes. Even though crime has declined, Ramsey said, 180 people died from gunfire last year and 400 more were wounded.
"This is a very bold step to take," Ramsey said. "It's also the right step to take to make this city the safest city in the country."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.