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Reckless Lawsuit Preemption Approved By Judiciary Committee

Saturday, April 5, 2003

On Thursday, April 3, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted 21 - 11 to approve H.R. 1036, the reckless lawsuit preemption bill. This legislation seeks to end the gun-ban lobby’s efforts to drive law-abiding firearm manufacturers, distributors, and dealers into bankruptcy under the crushing weight of predatory, illegitimate lawsuits. House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) commented, "Logic and fairness dictate that manufacturers and merchants should not be held responsible for the unlawful use of their lawful products."

Yesterday’s vote was preceded by testimony on Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law. In prepared testimony, Walter K. Olson, a Senior Fellow with the Manhattan Institute, told the Subcommittee, "I conclude that the gun suits are at best an assault on sound tenets of individual responsibility, and at worst a serious abuse of legal process." He went on to state, "Even more ominously, the suits demonstrate how a pressure group [the gun-ban lobby] can employ litigation to attempt an end run around democracy, in search of victories in court that it has been unable to obtain at the ballot box." Of course, NRA has been saying for years that the suits spearheaded by groups such as the Brady Campaign/HCI are shameless abuses of the judicial process. Failing to achieve their gun-ban agenda legislatively, these anti-gun extremists have used the courts in a two-pronged assault on the Second Amendment.

Promoters of reckless lawsuits have two goals. First, they hope to financially destroy the firearm industry by filing countless meritless lawsuits—suits based on the absurd legal theory that gun makers should be held accountable when violent criminals go through illegal channels to obtain lawful, non-defective firearms, then use them to commit violent crimes. Although the court losses continue to mount for these baseless suits, the firearm industry is still saddled with the cost of defending itself in court. Lawrence G. Keane, Vice President and General Counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), offered testimony on Wednesday, stating, "I believe a conservative estimate for the total, industry-wide cost of defense to date now exceeds $100 million dollars." This is a tremendous amount of money for an industry, Keane states, that would not equal a Fortune 100 company if combined into one corporation. And if anyone doubts one goal of these suits is to simply inflict devastating financial damage, Keane related that the anti-gun mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley (D), bragged his city’s suit would "hit [the firearms industry] where it hurts—in their bank accounts." Olson, meanwhile, told the Subcommittee that John Coale, one of the key lawyers behind the reckless lawsuit campaign, boasted, "The legal fees alone are enough to bankrupt the industry."

The second goal of those who promote these predatory suits is to find an activist judge or jury that is willing to usurp the legislative authority of Congress and impose judicially-mandated regulations that would drown the firearms industry under a deluge of bureaucratic red tape. Olson testified that, after the crushing defeat the gun-ban lobby experienced at the polls on election day 1994, "[S]ome leading gun-control advocates concluded that the democratic process was not ... going to grant them the kinds of restrictions on gun distribution they sought any time soon." Thus, they began placing most of their emphasis on promoting their baseless lawsuits.

And one of these reckless lawsuits, filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), may have found its ideal venue. It landed in the court of semi-retired Judge Jack Weinstein, who Keane described to Congress as being "well known in legal circles as an activist jurist." In fact, it was in Weinstein’s court in 1999 that one of the first HCI-backed reckless lawsuits, Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, experienced fleeting success, when a jury handed down a verdict that partially endorsed HCI’s judicial agenda. On appeal, however, the verdict and suit were completely rejected, first by the New York Court of Appeals, and then by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Congress should be outraged that certain lawyers and gun-ban advocates feel they can circumvent the legislative process by moving their anti-gun efforts into the courts. Olson told the Subcommittee the reckless lawsuit agenda reveals "an astounding contempt for the democratic process and for the lawmakers of this body." And Keane pointed to the opening statement of Dennis Hayes, the NAACP’s General Counsel, as further proof proponents of the reckless lawsuit agenda are trying to use the courts to impose restrictions on the firearms industry they are unable to pass through Congress. "[Hayes] said the NAACP was asking that the court usher in an equitable code of conduct that changes the way business is done," Keene explained, "and that the case was about asking a federal court to step in and regulate the firearms industry."

Many thanks go out to all of the lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee who voted in favor of H.R. 1036, especially U.S. Representative Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the sole Democrat on the Committee who had the integrity to go against his party’s anti-gun leaders and vote in favor of this critical reform. We should also thank U.S. Representative Chris Cannon (R-Ut.), who Chairs the Subcommittee of Commercial and Administrative Law, and Judiciary Chairman Sensenbrenner.

The next step for H.R. 1036 will be a vote by the full House of Representatives next week, so please be sure to call your U.S. Representative and urge him to support this critical reform. You can reach your U.S. Representative by calling (202) 225-3121. For additional contact information, please use our "Write Your Representatives" tool.

Meanwhile, we still need to add to the list of cosponsors for S. 659, the Senate’s version of reckless lawsuit preemption. Those Senators who have already signed on to S. 659 deserve our thanks, so please contact them to express your support. Those who have not should be encouraged to sign on as cosponsors. To find out if your U.S. Senators have signed on yet, go to the Library of Congress website. You can reach your U.S. Senators by calling (202) 224-3121. For additional contact information, use our "Write Your Representatives" tool.

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