Politics & Policy

Litigation Without Justification Is Tyranny

The NAACP rightly loses in court.

The NAACP this week did not distinguish itself in the advancement of black Americans, or any Americans, for that matter. Instead it became the latest in a long list of losers — liberal activist power cliques — to fail in a frivolous lawsuit against gun manufacturers.

But the word “frivolous” trivializes the damage done to companies like Colt’s Manufacturing Co. and Smith & Wesson, who for a century and a half have outfitted civilians and the military with good quality firearms. All the companies together spent $10 million just defending themselves against the NAACP’s shakedown lawsuit. The formerly reputable civil-rights group made a sleazy grab for the same money that over a dozen big-city mayors had gone for, with the same humbling results.

It all started back in 1998 when New Orleans mayor Marc Morial filed suit against a group of firearm manufacturers, claiming they were responsible for criminal abuse of firearms in his city. No groundswell of support motivated Morial. He was a crusader for the liberal cause of gun control, and he urged his fellow mayors to bring similar actions. Gun-control lobbyists like the Brady Campaign (then known as Handgun Control, Inc.) joined in, bringing along the enormously wealthy foundations that had long been their patrons.

Soon the firearm industry faced a flying wedge of mayors, gun-control activists, and plaintiff attorneys, all pushing the outlandish claim that gun makers were responsible for the criminal misuse of their products. The argument started with the assumption that guns are a “public nuisance.” Manufacturers knew that some of their product was being diverted to the criminal underground market and were therefore to blame. Nowhere was it alleged that the criminals themselves might have played a part, or heaven forbid, that the cities’ own police departments had failed to stop crime.

But courts all over the U.S. have rejected the suits, one by one. Appeals courts have mostly agreed. The lawsuits filed by officials of New Orleans, Boston, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Bridgeport, Conn., Wilmington, Del., Camden County, N.J., and Miami-Dade County have all been tossed out of court and denied on appeal, according to a scorecard kept by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Chicago, Gary, Ind., Washington, D.C. and the states of California and New York all had their cases dismissed by trial courts and are now appealing.

In an increasingly unhinged world of litigation, courts have shown refreshing wisdom in rejecting the claims. As the Florida appellate court said in throwing out Miami-Dade County’s suit, “The judiciary is not empowered to ‘enact’ regulatory measures in the guise of injunctive relief. The power to legislate belongs not to the judicial branch of government but to the legislative branch.” Hijacking legislative power is, of course, what the mayors and their gun-control-activist comrades had in mind.

The worst part of it all is the utter contempt that even top government officials have for due process. Clinton Cabinet member Andrew Cuomo threatened gun manufacturers with “death by a thousand cuts,” a brazen reference to the strategy of bankrupting them with defense lawyers’ fees. The mendacious litigants knew their end run around orderly lawmaking was not likely to succeed, and they forged ahead anyway.

Mayor Morial was shut down by the Louisiana legislature, which invalidated his lawsuit and any others like it. Boston city lawyers realized during the discovery phase that their case was so weak they petitioned the court to dismiss it. Ironically, in their withdrawal statement the city acknowledged that gun manufacturers were “committed to the safe, legal, and responsible sale and use of their products.”

Cincinnati’s city council, watching their own litigation costs mount, voted unanimously to drop that city’s suit against gun makers. Being slapped down by both the trial court and the court of appeals convinced them that their case was no more likely to win than Boston’s.

In summary, small groups of elite powerbrokers around the country have abused the judicial process in an attempt to destroy the firearm-manufacturing industry. They have fraudulently harmed a highly regulated industry that deals honestly in a legal product. The estimated $100 million that gun makers have spent so far to defend themselves is already jacking up the price of guns those same cities will have to buy for their police departments. And so it goes.

That small urban-power elites could wreak such damage outside legitimate government channels is an outrage that cries out for a legislative solution. Thirty states have already passed laws barring malicious litigation against innocent gun manufacturers. A federal law would put a stop to judicial abuses and leave gun policy to the legislatures. What an agreeably democratic change that would be.

— Timothy Wheeler, M.D. is director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Claremont Institute.

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