Stan Chesley could hardly believe what he was hearing. It was Thursday, May 14, 1998, a night when most of the country was tuning in to the final episode of Seinfeld. Chesley, comfortable in his luxury suite in Washington, D.C.’s Willard hotel, wasn’t watching. Instead, he was talking with his longtime friend and colleague Wendell Gauthier–the New Orleans trial lawyer who had risen to national prominence as leader of the Castano group, a coalition of trial lawyers that had brought the first nationwide class action against Big Tobacco. Just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the hotel, Congress appeared poised to pass the McCain bill, legislation that would force the tobacco industry to pay out $500 billion, a good chunk of which would go to settle claims brought by Gauthier, Chesley, and other Castano lawyers. And yet Gauthier had more on his mind than just tobacco. As Chesley listened, he laid out his vision for another massive piece of tort litigation–this one targeting the makers and sellers of guns.

Chesley was skeptical. The group had just spent five punishing years pursuing the tobacco industry, a fight that had cost tens of millions of dollars and tested the stamina of even the most veteran trial lawyers in the group. Gauthier said that he understood Chesley’s concerns; he too had been doubtful at first. He acknowledged that the gun industry was not a true “deep pocket” and agreed that the tobacco wars had been hard on the Castano coalition. But the suit fit with Gauthier’s notion of the plaintiffs bar as a de facto fourth branch of government, one that achieved regulation through litigation where legislation failed. And as Gauthier saw it, if there was one industry that rivaled Big Tobacco in throwing around its legislative clout on both the state and federal level, it was the gun industry and its allies in the National Rifle Association. For more than an hour Gauthier worked to convince Chesley that gun litigation should be the Castano group’s next big thing. “What these guys have gotten away with,” Gauthier told his colleague, “is criminal.” Chesley agreed to think it over, even while harboring serious reservations about how Castano members would react. He recalls wondering: Is anyone really going to line up behind this?