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Chris W. Cox's Political Report: D.C. and S. 397

Monday, August 1, 2005


CHRIS COX, NRA-ILA Executive Director

The same-song chorus of reactions to a bill to reform D.C. gun laws is not a new one. But now, another obscure D.C. law has emerged as a major threat to gun owners all across the nation. This is a law you have probably never even heard or read about.

he outcry was predictable. Several U.S. senators recently held a press conference to announce their introduction of a Senate bill to reform the gun laws in our nation's capital. Local politicians immediately teamed up with the hometown media elite to declare their outrage.

Washington, D.C.'s representative in Congress called the bill an "attack on our children." The city mayor called the bill a "vicious attack" and an "insult" to the children.

The same-song chorus of reactions to a bill to reform D.C. gun laws is not a new one. But now, another obscure D.C. law has emerged as a major threat to gun owners all across the nation.

Called the "Assault Weapon Manufacturing Strict Liability Act," the law was passed as an empty rhetorical gesture in 1990. The law holds the manufacturer, dealer or importer of any "assault weapon" or "machine gun" strictly liable for the damages arising from injuries or deaths resulting from the firearm's discharge in the District.

The law is so outrageous that it sat dormant for more than a decade, too preposterous for even the legal vultures in the gun-ban lobby to exploit.

"Strictly liable" means just that-held directly responsible for the criminal acts of others. Do not pass "go"; do not seek due process or respect for hundreds of years of legal precedent to the contrary, because the court will ignore you. The law says what it says. Anyone in the District can file a suit claiming millions of dollars in damages, and then the gun manufacturer proceeds directly to court. If a gun named in the law was used illegally by a criminal, the gun manufacturer will be hit with a judgment ordering the gun manufacturer to pay all costs for the mayhem caused by that criminal act.

There's more. While the law applies on its face only to "assault weapons" and "machine guns," it relies on the definition of such firearms in the D.C. code. And wouldn't you know it, the firearms forensic experts on the D.C. City Council have a somewhat broader idea than most of what constitutes such a firearm. In the fine print of the D.C. law, the definition includes any firearm that can shoot semi-automatically more than 12 rounds without manual reloading. So in truth, the law applies to any semi-automatic firearm that can accept a detachable magazine.

The law is so outrageous that it sat dormant for more than a decade, too preposterous for even the legal vultures in the gun-ban lobby to exploit. But when baseless lawsuits against the gun industry became a rampant cancer upon our judicial system, the mayor of the District couldn't resist the temptation to file a lawsuit against the industry under the law's absurd provisions.

First dismissed, then appealed, then appealed again to the full D.C. Court of Appeals, the lawsuit was recently upheld by an 8-to-1 vote in the Appeals Court. It took 48 pages of convoluted opinion for the District's top judges to justify their votes in favor of the law.

Since the plague of baseless lawsuits began, we have consistently warned that all it would take to bring our rights to the brink of ruin is one rogue judge or jury. It is not particularly surprising that the gun-ban lobby managed to find eight of them right here in the nation's capital. What is surprising is that it took this long. The injustice of this ruling is now poised to run roughshod over our rights.

Here's why. The firearms covered under the law are made by most of the nation's most famous and successful gun makers, as well as hundreds of smaller manufacturers. All of these manufacturers are now subject to being hauled into court by every victim of any of thousands of violent crimes committed in D.C. each year.

Worse yet, the ruling compounds the liability exposure of companies by holding that plaintiffs who do not know the identity of the firearm used in the crime may sue, and seek "discovery," from the entire field of manufacturers of guns covered under the law. Every time such a suit is filed, hundreds of companies will incur thousands of dollars in legal fees apiece, simply to comply with fishing expeditions into the records, and then the pockets, of lawful companies manufacturing non-defective products.

Even some of our adversaries in the anti-gun media have expressed concern over the ramifications of these lawsuits. The Washington Post editorialized that "the rash of lawsuits against the industry is troubling … litigation is not the answer to America's problem with guns."

That's because the situation has become truly dire. The lawsuits have already bled the industry of more than $250 million in defense costs, with much more of the same now in the forecast thanks to the D.C. law. Several manufacturers have already declared bankruptcy under this mountain of legal bills-with many more teetering on the brink of financial ruin.

One major manufacturer has already warned the Pentagon that these lawsuits, if left unchecked, will jeopardize the supply pipeline of guns and ammunition needed by our military and law enforcement officers-not to mention the rest of us. Plants will be closed, communities will be devastated and our armed forces may end up at the mercy of foreign companies to supply our troops.

Now, the only court of appeal left is the U.S. Supreme Court, which generally ignores outlandish rulings until and unless they are presented with a contrary ruling from another circuit. That contrary ruling will not come from the federal courts in Brooklyn, where notorious anti-gun Judge Jack Weinstein is expected to issue a separate, massive judgment against the firearm industry in early September.

The only other solution is now on the floor of Congress-S. 397 and H.R. 800, the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act." These reform bills will do one thing only-put an end to the cancerous plague of lawsuits that blame our firearm industry for the criminal acts of third parties. Both chambers of Congress are gearing up now for what promises to be a ferocious debate. On one side are the gun-ban lobby and its billionaire donors, its ringleaders in Congress, the anti-gun media and a horde of gun-ban lawyers coached on by anti-gun, activist judges. On the other side are you and me-and all the strength we can muster to make justice prevail.

Call your senators and congress-man today. Urge them to support S. 397 and H.R. 800, and to vote for this legislation without any anti-gun amendments. This is a landmark battle of the unique kind, where the power of our grassroots can overcome the seemingly insurmountable forces of opposition arrayed against us.

Call today. Tomorrow may be too late.


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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.