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Lawyers, Guns, and Money By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 28, 1999

THE PURPOSE OF THE LAWSUITS Los Angeles and San Francisco have brought against gun manufacturers "is more about changing the way they do business than money," declares L.A. City Attorney James Hahn. Louise Renne, his San Francisco counterpart, repeats the same mantra. The goal, she swears, "is not so much money but reform of the industry." As with professional athletes, when lawyers say "it’s not about money," it’s about money.

Mr. Hahn complains that gun makers know very little about the licensed firearms dealers who carry their merchandise. An agent "could be someone in a skid-row hotel or a mom at a kitchen table. There’s no storefront required. If you’re selling a product with your name, you ought to care how it is sold." It might be unfair to impose that standard exclusively on gun manufacturers, and it’s doubtful that doing so would reduce crime. But if politicians want that sort of reform, they can achieve it more properly by passing new laws or tightening existing regulations. Democrats, who hold the California assembly, senate, and governor’s mansion, would have no difficulty enacting more gun control.

Exacting revenues, however, is a tricky undertaking, and that’s where a lawsuit comes in handy. Judges are largely immune to democratic pressures, so they can transfer money from the private to the public sector (read: tax) without fear of political repercussion. Hence the cities’ choice of a legal venue, and not a political one, for their war on guns. They are by no means indifferent to the financial windfall that awaits them—their suit aims to impose hefty civil penalties and confiscate industry profits.

In similar cases, fourteen other American cities, including New York, Detroit, and Miami, have all demanded compensation for the cost of fighting gun-related crime. Los Angeles and San Francisco are trying a different approach. "Basically," Mr. Hahn contends, "the gun makers supply the illegal underground market by flooding the legal market with more guns than it can absorb." It’s a novel theory, albeit economic nonsense—black markets spring up in response to scarcity, not excess. Moreover, it rests on the same dubious premise as the fourteen other cases: lawful businesses are liable for the unlawful uses customers find for their products. The same logic would allow drunk-driving victims to sue automobile manufacturers, or fire departments who battle arson to seek reimbursement from gasoline companies.

While proponents of pass-the-blame litigation invariably cite justice as their motive, the million- or billion-dollar price tag suggests otherwise. The cities suing the gun industry are following in the footsteps of the states, who made a killing forcing expensive settlements on tobacco companies. Never mind that individual smokers choose their lethal habit voluntarily; individual smokers don’t have the corporations’ deep pockets. Nor, for that matter, do the criminals who misuse guns. Punishing companies for acts beyond their control is far more lucrative, and the cost is borne by their customers—law-abiding as well as law-breaking.

Hollywood is next in the litigators’ crosshairs. Parents in Paducah, Kentucky, have filed a $130 million federal lawsuit against the entertainment industry, because classmate Michael Carneal opened fire on their children as they prayed in a high-school corridor. Carneal loaded the gun and blasted it all by himself, they admit, but they insist that a movie—The Basketball Diaries—and shoot’em-up video games like "Quake" and "Doom" gave him the inspiration and the know-how. The family of a Louisiana woman shot and paralyzed by two teenagers last year is suing director Oliver Stone and Time-Warner, alleging that Natural Born Killers caused the tragedy. Most recently, the parents of a young man murdered by a fellow guest on the Jenny Jones show won $25 million when lawyers persuaded a jury that the program’s producers should have seen the attack coming.

Attorney Geoffrey Fieger spearheaded the effort against Jenny Jones, and has since launched a $250 million action against the parents of Littleton killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. "Responsibility for violence," he explains, "sometimes extends beyond the person who pulls the trigger"—and usually to those with the biggest bank accounts, however tangentially they might be connected to the crime at hand. Mr. Fieger spent years defending Jack Kevorkian, a man who has literally, and by his own admission, killed more than 100 people. Responsibility for violence, it seems, can extend to just about anyone except the person who pulls the trigger, so long as he cannot afford a cash settlement. That’s what happens when justice is less concerned with culpability than with net worth.

Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.

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