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Legislators have taken up a not-so-subtle invitation from the California Supreme Court and are on the verge of revamping state law to allow a whole new round of suits against gun manufacturers. On Wednesday, the California Senate gave thumbs up to a bill that allows suits against gun companies for willful or negligent acts or omissions in the design, distribution and marketing of firearms and ammunition. The bill, by Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, overturns a 1983 law that explicitly exempts gun makers from liability in such suits. The move comes on the heels of a 2001 ruling by the Supreme Court that rejected claims that Navegar Inc., a gun maker, was liable for the 1993 shooting rampage at Pettit & Martin, a law firm at 101 California St. in San Francisco. The court said Navegar could not be held responsible for selling the military-style guns used in the shootings to the general public. In their ruling, justices practically issued an engraved invitation to lawmakers to rewrite product liability law if they so choose. “The Legislature has set California’s public policy regarding a gun manufacturer’s liability under these circumstances,” Justice Ming Chin wrote in Merrill v. Navegar Inc., 26 Cal.4th 465. “Given that public policy, plaintiffs may not proceed with their negligence claims.” In a separate concurrence, Justice Joyce Kennard wrote: “It is not for us to question the wisdom of the Legislature’s considered judgment,” she wrote. “Any change in Civil Code §1714.4 must come from the Legislature.” Koretz’s bill, AB 496, has been amended since it passed the Assembly last summer and must now go back to that house before it can move to Gov. Gray Davis. Davis will consider it along with an identical bill introduced by state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland. Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean said the governor has not taken a position on the measures. “He’s clearly concerned about public safety,” she said, adding that Davis had signed a package of gun safety bills his first year in office. Among other things, the bills banned military-style assault weapons and unsafe handguns — dubbed Saturday Night Specials — and required childproof safety locks on all firearms sold or manufactured in California. Despite the uncertainty from the governor’s office, the sponsors are betting the governor will sign the measures. Scott Svonkin, Koretz’s chief of staff, said Davis also took a position on gun manufacturer liability when he was in the state Legislature, voting against the exemption granted to gun manufacturers in the 1983 law. “We’re hoping that since then he didn’t change his position,” Svonkin said. “There’s no indication that he did.” Republican senators opposed to Koretz’s bill described it as an attempt to discourage gun making and shift the blame for violence from criminals. “It’s the nut behind the trigger that causes the damage, not the manufacturer of the gun itself,” said Sen. Ray Haynes, R-Riverside. Sen. Thomas “Rico” Oller, R-San Andreas, said the “ultimate goal” of bill supporters was to make life so difficult for gun manufacturers that they will stop making their products. But Svonkin claims “the bill is not designed to change how gun manufacturers market to law-abiding citizens but how they market to criminals.” Koretz’s bill “will hold them liable if they attempt to market to criminals or protect criminals,” he said. Perata said other products are “subject to normal tort standards for liability. We’re not asking for anything more or anything less, just the same thing.” Michael Feuer, a litigator at Morrison & Foerster and former Los Angeles city councilman who wrote gun control legislation, said the bills — if enacted — are likely to radically change the playing field for gun makers. “I think this will have a major impact on future litigation,” Feuer said. “The marketing and distribution practices thus far have been insulated from attack.”

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