(CNSNews.com) - Gun manufacturers, trade groups and most distributors scored a victory in California last week when a judge tossed out a lawsuit brought against them by 12 cities and counties that alleged the firearms industry knowingly puts guns in the hands of criminals.
California Superior Court Judge Vincent P. DiFiglia handed down his decision Friday, granting motions by manufacturers, distributors and trade associations to dismiss the case. Several gun rights organizations hailed DiFiglia's ruling.
"This victory supports the long-held principle that responsible and law-abiding manufacturers of highly regulated, non-defective firearms cannot be held accountable when criminals misuse their legally sold products," said Lawrence G. Keane, vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which was a defendant in the case.
The three-year-old case stems from lawsuits filed by large California cities and counties, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, which accused 29 gun manufacturers, six distributors and three trade groups of "dumping" guns in areas where criminals and children could buy them.
The Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence represented the 12 cities and counties. Their lawsuit claimed the gun industry created a "public nuisance" in violation of California's Business and Professions Code. Calls to the Brady Center were not returned.
Although most of the lawsuit was thrown out, two gun distributors and two dealers still remain, mostly for technical reasons, said Chuck Michel, spokesman for the California Rifle and Pistol Association. He said the case against the two retailers might be dismissed as early as next week.
Michel represents SG Distributing and Turner's Outdoorsman, a distributor and dealer that were sued.
"The bottom line is that all the significant stuff has been thrown out," he said. "This was a frivolous lawsuit from day one and the judge - three years later - finally addressed that."
The negligent marketing lawsuit was not unique to California. Last year, Keane said, the city of Boston dropped a similar lawsuit when it could not produce evidence that the gun industry had done anything wrong.
The California lawsuit drew comparisons to the large-scale legal battles states carried out against the tobacco industry in the late 1990s. Gun-control groups even produced a whistle-blower, whom newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times called the "smoking gun."
Robert A. Ricker, former executive director of the now-defunct American Shooting Sports Council and a former National Rifle Association lawyer, delivered an affidavit in the case. According to the Brady Center, Ricker's testimony "describes how gun makers have long been aware that distributors and dealers are diverting weapons illegally."
The lawsuit alleges that those distributors and dealers sent guns to areas where "straw purchasers" bought the guns. They would then be sold to criminals.
The Brady Center, which tracks gun lawsuits, including California v. Arcadia Machine Tool, claims cities have gone to great lengths to stop gun violence.
"California has experienced serious harm from the widespread availability and misuse of firearms by minors, criminals and other unauthorized users. In 1997, guns were used in California to commit 1,835 homicides and to inflict more than 25,000 serious injuries," according to the Brady Center.
Much like the tobacco lawsuits, the cities and countries sought monetary damages. They claimed criminals used the guns illegally, resulting in medical expenses incurred by the municipalities.
"You can't blame honest people for the things criminals do," NSSF spokesman Gary G. Mehalik said. "We distribute a legally manufactured product through a chain that is licensed by the federal government. Because somebody misuses something that a manufacturer builds doesn't mean that the manufacturer has done anything wrong.
"It's the equivalent of saying that if somebody goes out and drinks and gets in a car and runs over someone, the victim's family gets to sue the person who brewed the beer and made the car," he added.
The NSSF pointed to a U.S. House of Representatives bill that would put an end to these "wasteful lawsuits."
Gun Owners of America spokesman Erich Pratt said the dismissal was not too surprising since groups like the Brady Center have never proved the gun industry knowingly aids criminals.
"It's obvious that these people have an agenda and that they are pursuing a back-door form of gun control," he said. "They want to cripple the gun industry unless the business executives adopt the foolish restrictions that gun haters are seeking."
The cities and counties can appeal the decision. In addition to San Francisco and Los Angeles, the other plaintiffs include Berkeley, Sacramento, San Mateo County, Alameda County, Oakland, East Palo Alto, Compton and West Hollywood, Inglewood and Los Angeles County.
Michel said that without gun manufacturers involved anymore, the lawsuit has lost its focus. He said no one in the gun industry has "deep pockets" like tobacco companies, but that was what the plaintiffs wanted to convey. Michel said it did not work.
"They're getting their butt kicked all over the country," he said. "Legally, it's pretty clear, especially in light of recent rulings, but the trend among the courts has been to limit the applicability of these claims. They have an uphill battle."
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