Suing America's Gun Makers

The White House is helping prepare a class-action suit against gun makers, alleging that guns and how they are marketed have contributed to violence in public housing projects, administration officials said Tuesday.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said that the lawsuit is not imminent. But the hope is the suit will heighten pressure on gun manufacturers to respond in a meaningful way to 28 states and cities that are seeking to recover the cost of gun violence.

"It is our hope that the negotiations going on now reach fruition. We don't need protracted litigation," Lockhart said. "That's part of what the discussions going on now are looking at, to try to catalyze some fundamental reform in the way gun makers do business, as far as production and marketing."

Miami Mayor Alex Penelas applauded the White House's move, saying it "laid the foundation for the current efforts by cities and counties to compel the gun industry to take responsibility for its dangerous product."

"Miami-Dade County will gladly drop its claim for monetary damages if the gun industry would agree to manufacture safer, childproof guns and change its negligent distribution practices," Penelas said.

The National Rifle Association, however, condemned the threatened lawsuit as "a frightening holiday greeting from Bill Clinton and Al Gore."

"No lawful industry is safe. Who will they sue next? Automobile makers? The distiller industry? Manufacturers of baseball bats and kitchen knives?" said James J. Baker, executive director of NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. "The vast majority of Americans know that we should hold violent criminals directly responsible for their crimes."

The lawsuit by some or all of the nation's 3,100 local housing authorities would be patterned on suits filed against the industry by 29 cities and counties, the officials said.

Those suits claim that gun manufacturers have sold defective products or marketed them in ways that increase the likelihood that they will be used to commit crimes.

A negotiated agreement would allow the administration and gun control advocates to claim a victory at a time when Congress has rejected writing into law new firearms restrictions sought by President Clinton.

Administration officials said the White House and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were helping prepare the suit even though the actual plaintiff would be independent local authorities that run federal housing programs.

The White House and HUD want gun makers to agree to a code of conduct that includes cracking down on disreputable gun dealers and making safer guns. The administration also wants gun makers to agree to end practices such as marketing guns that are impervious to fingerprints.

HUD officials would not detail any previous outreach to gun makers but said new talks were planned.

The gun makers have cknowledged the talks, but objected to the characterization of the meetings as "negotiations."

Among the companies reportedly involved in the discussions have been Smith and Wesson, Sturm, Ruger and Co., Colt's Manufacturing, O.F. Mossberg and sons, Taurus, Glock and Beretta.

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