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At the gun industry’s annual trade show this week in Atlanta, Glock Inc. unveiled its new Slimline. The .45-caliber pistol is just over an inch wide, according to a press release, fitting “the hand of almost any shooter” and making it “especially easy to conceal.” Glock adds that the Slimline, like the Austrian company’s other pistols, is shipped with a locking device, “included to enhance safe storage and promote family safety.” That’s not likely to stop Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell from joining other mayors who have sued the gun industry. Like the mayors of New Orleans and Miami, Campbell is expected to claim that guns are unreasonably dangerous and can be fired too easily by unauthorized users, such as children. Nick Gold, a Campbell spokesman, says the mayor could file his action against gun makers and distributors as early as Wednesday, before they pack up from their stay at the Georgia World Congress Center. Gold says Campbell’s suit may also attack defendants as “ignoring the effect gun violence has on young black children.” That’s a similar argument to one made in last week’s suit by the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., who alleged the gun makers specifically market guns to urban centers. Atlanta’s suit this week continued to be one of the more hotly debated pieces of unfiled litigation. Although the city hasn’t even hired an outside lawyer yet, two bills designed to forestall the suit are in the Georgia Legislature. The litigation has been roundly condemned by groups including the Southeastern Legal Foundation-not to mention gun manufacturers and their attorneys. WHO’S RESPONSIBLE? At a press conference Monday, gun industry representatives, conservative politicians and their allies decried what one called the “unholy alliance” of trial lawyers, gun control ideologues and “weak-kneed mayors” looking for new sources of revenue. They said the gun industry should not be held liable for the irresponsible or felonious behavior of the people who buy their products. Richard Feldman, executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, denied that the industry targets minorities for gun sales, calling it “a demand-driven business.” As to whether the gun makers could have produced so-called “smart gun” technology to prevent gun accidents involving children, Feldman says most companies are working on it but haven’t perfected it. “If there were some device that would prevent a gun from firing when pointed at a good guy,” Feldman says, “that device would be worth a lot of money.” How much money the city might collect from such a gun suit is an open question. But most observers agree the cities would not be able to collect nearly as much as states did in their assault on tobacco companies. The U.S. tobacco industry annually grosses about $200 billion, according to a book, The People vs. Big Tobacco, written by four Bloomberg News journalists, about the 1997 tobacco settlement. Gun industry representatives say their business is about 1 percent of that size, grossing between $2 billion and $3 billion a year. Critics of the suit claim there also is clearly something to be lost. Sponsors of the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show say the show is worth $50 million in convention business each year to a host city. One city that won’t be getting that money next year is New Orleans-the show was yanked because of the suit there. That doesn’t bother City Council member Michael Julian Bond, who supports the suit. “If it doesn’t do any more than make a moral statement, it’ll be worth doing,” he says. Campbell spokesman Gold adds the mayor “is not necessarily looking for monetary recovery.” Instead, Gold says, the suit is a way to tell gun makers, “We feel there’s a way you can make your product safer.” Whatever the message, whatever the possible recovery, Atlanta faces numerous impediments. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is a vow by state legislators to prohibit the suit. Other impediments include the possibility of countersuits by defenders of the rights of gun owners. In the meantime, the city is seeking to push the envelope in tort law. “I don’t know, quite frankly, of any state laws that would have been violated by the gun manufacturers,” says Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker, who filed the state’s tobacco suit. The suit alleged that tobacco makers violated Georgia’s racketeering law, among other things. Baker was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, but he says that has nothing to do with his lack of interest in suing gun manufacturers. “I’m not aware of any basis for a lawsuit,” he says. In the tobacco case, Baker sought the repayment of $2.78 billion in Medicaid funds for treating sick smokers. The city of Atlanta, on the other hand, “is going to have a challenge proving damages,” he says. New Orleans’ suit says the gun makers’ alleged unreasonably dangerous products and their negligent distribution has directly caused the city to pay “millions of dollars in the past to enhance police protection, emergency services, police pension benefits, medical care, facilities and services due to the threat of use of defendants’ products.” Morial v. Smith & Wesson Corp., No. 98-18578 (Orleans Parish Civil District Court filed Oct. 30, 1998). Suits like that one, alleging that gun designs are dangerous to children, will be the most difficult for gun makers to defend, says R. DeWitt “Kyle” Kirwan, who has won summary judgment verdicts for gun companies in California. The cases have an emotional appeal in their argument that guns don’t have adequate safety devices to protect children, adds Kirwan, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. But Kirwan expects gun makers to prevail, he says, because it will be hard for cities to prove that “manufacturers have become the guarantors of the good conduct of people over which they have no control.” Atlanta lawyer Daniel Kane, who has also won cases for gun makers, calls the suits “fatally flawed.” Unlike tobacco, whose purveyors were accused of lying to the public about the dangers of smoking, gun companies have always explained the dangers of guns, Kane says. Washington plaintiffs lawyer John Coale, one of dozens of tobacco lawyers who are also representing New Orleans against gun manufacturers, says “the fraud element in tobacco didn’t come out until discovery.” Thomas A. Eaton, a University of Georgia torts professor, says the cities have a chance, “but the underlying legal theories have not been established.” Moreover, he says, “There has been no political will to remove [guns] from the market,” yet victories by the cities could conceivably bankrupt the gun companies. “It’s kind of scary to place that kind of power in six or 12 people,” he says. Kenneth Carter, a New Orleans lawyer also representing that city, says Eaton is right that the cities are attempting to do through litigation what gun control advocates have failed to do politically. “That’s what happened with automobile manufacturers and tobacco,” Carter adds. Because of these suits, Carter predicts, “you’re going to see changes in the industry,” including the introduction of technology allowing only authorized users to fire the weapons. HEADING ‘EM OFF AT THE PASS All this assumes Atlanta’s suit isn’t strangled in its crib by the General Assembly. Last week the Georgia House voted 146-25 to pass House Bill 189, sponsored by Rep. Curtis S. Jenkins, D-Forsyth, which would declare the lawful design of guns “not unreasonably dangerous” and prohibit cities or other subdivisions of the state from suing gun makers. If it passes the Senate, the bill will put Gov. Roy E. Barnes in a bit of political pickle. Barnes is a life member of the National Rifle Association, which supports HB 189. But he is also a longtime member of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, which is opposed to the bill. And signing the bill would put him at odds with Campbell, a fellow Democrat who supported Barnes in last year’s general election. A Barnes spokesman says the governor will wait until a bill arrives on his desk to decide whether to sign it. If it’s passed and signed, it would become effective immediately. Campbell spokesman Gold says it’s safe to assume the city is racing to file its complaint before HB 189 can become law. But it could probably apply retroactively, says Dan T. Coonen, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Georgia. “The mere initiation of a lawsuit doesn’t entitle the city to anything,” as a property right from a previously decided verdict would, says Coonen, noting these are just his first impressions of the matter. And since the city is a creature of the state government, to say the state can’t restrict the city’s right to sue “is something of a reach,” he says. On the other side, Nicholas C. Moraitakis, who chairs the trial lawyers’ legislative committee, says he questions the constitutionality of the bill and, on first glance, does not see how it could apply retroactively. “Our position is to permit everyone’s access to the civil justice system,” he says. “The courts will decide whether the suit has any merit in short order.” If the city does get to sue the gun makers, it should expect to defend itself against a suit filed by the Second Amendment Foundation, a Bellevue, Wash.-based group that supports gun owners. Alan M. Gottlieb, the group’s founder, says he expects to file civil rights claims-based on a denial of a right to self-defense and the right to bear arms-against any city suing the gun makers. His complaint would be written by a 12-member steering committee, which includes law professors such as Daniel D. Polsby and Steven Calabresi at Northwestern University in Chicago. Neither could be reached. The Atlanta-based Southeastern Legal Foundation is also rattling its briefcases in response to the suits against gun makers. “We’re moving into a very dangerous area,” says Matthew J. Glavin, president of the conservative legal action group, “if we start holding manufacturers liable for the irresponsible acts of consumers.” Glavin says his group, which last month won a U.S. Supreme Court case to prevent census sampling, might file civil rights, interstate commerce and civil racketeering claims against the cities suing gun makers. Although in-house lawyers have been researching the city’s causes of action, Susan Pease Langford, the Atlanta city attorney, says she expects to hire outside counsel to handle the city’s case against gun makers. A process to pick the lawyers has not been decided on, however. “It depends on what we do and how we do it,” she says. Langford says she has met with New Orleans lawyer Carter, one of dozens of tobacco lawyers representing the Crescent City in its gun suit. For that case, Carter says, his group has agreed to be paid 20 percent of any pre-trial settlement and 30 percent of any trial judgment.

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