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San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office on Thursday trumpeted a “groundbreaking” tentative settlement with gun dealers and distributors. But two advocates for the gun industry and owners called his characterization bunk. The settlement, which requires approval from 12 local governments that brought the litigation and a San Diego Superior Court judge, isn’t a financial windfall for San Francisco like the historic settlement with Big Tobacco. The city’s legal costs in the 4-year-old case have reached about $2 million, and the five defendants would hand over a total of $70,000 to the 12 plaintiff jurisdictions if the deal goes through. Herrera emphasized that the five companies also would agree to reform their business practices in California, and in some cases Arizona and Nevada. “This case was brought in the very beginning to reform industry practices, and you’re seeing the first instance of that,” Herrera said. “I think that’s very encouraging.” But Chuck Michel, spokesman and attorney for the California Rifle and Pistol Association, a 65,000-member state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, sees it another way. “They’ve spent several million bucks, and they got back $70,000,” he said of the 12 plaintiffs. “That’s the kind of math that got us in trouble in Sacramento.” San Francisco sued a host of gun dealers, distributors and manufacturers in 1999, seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties under Business & Professions Code � 17200, said Owen Clements, chief of special litigation in the city attorney’s office. The city’s case was later consolidated with similar lawsuits across the state as People v. Arcadia Machine & Tool Inc., JCCP-4095. The plaintiffs alleged, for example, that gun dealers were failing to prevent sales to straw purchasers, who then passed guns along to people who wouldn’t easily qualify to buy them. Earlier this year, San Diego Superior Court Judge Vincent DiFiglia granted summary judgment in favor of about 20 manufacturers and trade associations, including big-name companies such as Beretta and Smith & Wesson, Clements said. The plaintiff jurisdictions have appealed that decision. But the five dealers and distributors were to face a trial. Among the trade association defendants was the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the firearms and recreational shooting sports industry. “The city of San Francisco’s lawsuit against the industry has been a complete failure, and they’re not trying to deflect attention from that failure by creating some groundbreaking victory here,” said Lawrence Keane, vice president and general counsel for the association. “This is nothing but spin.” The reforms include an agreement not to sell at gun shows and to train employees to spot straw purchasers. Herrera says the reforms, which ultimately aim to reduce the number of guns that wind up in the hands of criminals or juveniles, are what the suit has been about from day one. He has no regrets, he added. “Especially when you’re pursuing litigation that’s in the public interest, it’s not always about money,” he said. “If we can keep guns off the street, and protect lives, that’s just as, if not more, important than bringing money into city coffers.” The city attorney also hopes the settlement will weaken the arguments in favor of a bill the U.S. Senate is considering, the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.” It would shield firearm and ammunition manufacturers, distributors, dealers and importers from being sued for harm caused by unlawful use of their products, if they function as designed and intended. The House of Representatives passed a companion bill with a 285-to-140 vote in April. “The litigation that we filed has resulted in significant reforms. And I think that people should consider that when they’re considering a vote on a prospective piece of legislation that would grant the industry widespread immunity,” Herrera said. “Obviously they’re paying because they could have been found liable if the case went to trial, which sends a significant message to the rest of the industry,” Clements said. But proponents of the bill say no significance should be read into the deal, beyond five companies extracting themselves from a lawsuit. “What the city is doing here is attempting to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” said Michel, who represents one of the settling retailers, but emphasized he was speaking strictly on behalf of the rifle and pistol association. As for the reforms, he said, “90 percent of what they got the defendants to agree to, the defendants were already doing,” an assertion Herrera vehemently disputes. “As far as the other 10 percent of the changes they managed to extort out of these guys, they could have asked,” Michel added.

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