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Monday, February 23, 2004
Let's end junk lawsuits

By  
Doug Painter
President, NSSF

For you, it's a baseball bat, maybe the one your kid uses at the sand lot. Or the one you drag out of the closet every summer when that softball league at the office forces you to resolve to get more exercise. It's a recreational device in your hands, but in the hands of a criminal, a potentially deadly instrument. Baseball bats, after all, are among the most frequently used assault weapons in America.

So, when someone maims a victim with that slugger in a robbery, or breaks through a car window to abduct a frightened woman, or enforces a gang's turf with it, would it be right for big city mayors to drag sporting goods companies through lawsuits in the courts and threaten them with ruin because a crook used their bat? What if you were sued because a bat stolen from your house was used in a crime?

We're talking about lawsuits filed because of the illegal acts of disconnected third parties, criminals with no relationship to lawful, responsible companies making or selling legal and non-defective products.

That's what happened beginning in 1998 when the first of more than 30 lawsuits were filed against the firearms industry.

It was part of a scheme hatched by big city mayors and some of the country's richest lawyers to divert taxpayer funds and municipal resources into their plan to misuse our courts for their political purpose. Firearm makers, they calculated, could be forced out of business or made to pay huge sums of money if courts would find them accountable for things criminals do. And, by one estimate, it has cost businesses that did nothing wrong about $100 million in the last five years to clear their good names. It is a slow and expensive process, winning vindication, and that too was part of the scheme.

Incredible as it seems, we're talking about lawsuits filed because of the illegal acts of disconnected third parties, criminals with no relationship to lawful, responsible companies making or selling legal and non-defective products. Yet it takes years to get the cases put to rest.

Most recently, a decision in New York's Appellate Court affirmed what judges have done in similar cases across the land. The court expressed well-founded fear that giving the green light to a strategy of blaming gun companies for the criminal misuse of their products will "likely open the courthouse doors to a flood of limitless, similar theories of public nuisance, not only against [gun makers], but also against a wide and varied array of other commercial and manufacturing enterprises and activities."

Thirty states now have laws to prevent such abuse of the courts, but reform is also necessary at the federal level. That's why an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives recently voted for a bill that now is before the Senate, S. 659 called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. Fifty-four Senators have agreed, thus far, to support this common sense measure. Sixty are needed to prevent a threatened filibuster.

Contrary to what has been reported, there is no exemption in the bill for negligent or criminal behavior, no so-called "blanket immunity" for defective products.

Contrary to what has been reported, there is no exemption in the bill for negligent or criminal behavior, no so-called "blanket immunity" for defective products. Gun makers and distributors would still have to abide by product liability laws and still face civil suits for defective products. Retailers who break the law, or sell guns to people prohibited from owning them, could still face criminal charges and civil suits.

Democrats and Republicans alike approved the House bill, which says in part that "imposing liability on an entire industry for harm that is solely caused by others is an abuse of the legal system, erodes public confidence in our Nation's laws, threatens the diminution of a basic constitutional right and civil liberty, invites the disassembly and destabilization of other industries and economic sectors lawfully competing in the free enterprise system of the United States and constitutes an unreasonable burden on interstate and foreign commerce of the United States."

As a practical matter, the jobs of thousands in the manufacturing sector directly depend on passage of this measure, and so do millions more whose income is generated to some extent by the commerce that sport shooting and hunting activities represent. Americans who are proud of the well-designed products they make or sell, and who responsibly operate their businesses, all have a stake in passage of legislation to prevent unfair lawsuits against manufacturers and sellers of firearms. Their companies could be the next targets of such legal abuse.

The National Association of Manufacturers, representing 14,000 companies and the 18 million people they employ recently wrote Senators, "The NAM does not usually become involved in legislation affecting a single sector. But, this 'regulation by litigation' threatens all businesses because it is designed to get around the democratic process and to pursue social goals with respect to an industry through judicial fiat. It is a certainty that other businesses will be the next target if these groups succeed in misusing the courts against the firearms industry. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act will help to forestall lawsuits that are brought with the intent of shutting down a legitimate and legal industry, as opposed to those that are brought to right a genuine wrong."

Click here to find out if your Senator supports Senate bill 659.

Material provided by the Nation Sport Shooting Foundation, for more Senate bill 659, visit www.nssf.org.