Gun makers claimed victory today when a San Diego judge dismissed them, weapons distributors and trade associations from a product liability lawsuit brought by major California cities against the firearms industry.

Only a half-dozen gun dealers remain in the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial in late April.

The municipalities, including San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, claim the industry created a public nuisance by supplying guns to ineligible buyers, and violated state business laws by making misleading statements about the dangers of gun ownership. The suit also alleged that the firearms industry failed to incorporate safety features and to prevent guns from falling into the hands of juveniles and criminals.

Filed in 1999, the suit named 38 defendants, including weapons manufacturers and distributors and trade associations, and was brought by 12 municipalities. It is one of a dozen actions filed nationwide by public entities, and was patterned on the successful tobacco litigation brought by 46 states and which ended in a $40 billion settlement in 1998.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Vincent DiFiglia heard arguments from 36 attorneys during today's hearing before dismissing the 29 weapons makers, six distributors and three trade associations, finding too tenuous a relationship between them and the dealers.

The cities presented an affidavit by Robert Ricker, former head of the American Shooting Sports Council, who testified that despite their denials, gun makers and trade associations have long been aware that dealers are selling weapons illegally.

The firearms industry described DiFiglia's ruling as "a crushing defeat" for California cities and counties, which blamed the industry for contributing to more than 1,800 shooting deaths and 25,000 gun-related injuries in 1997.

"This is a definitive victory for us in a string of vindications that began a year ago when the city of Boston dropped its suit against the industry for lack of proof of wrongdoing," said Lawrence G. Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., the firearms industry's major trade association and a defendant in the case.

"This victory supports the long-held principle that responsible and law-abiding manufacturers of highly regulated, nondefective firearms cannot be held accountable when criminals misuse their legally sold products," he added.

State courts have thrown out at least six of the dozen gun liability cases filed since 1999, according to the Brady Center's Legal Action Project, which is participating in the California suit.