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Post date: June 25 2000

New York Becomes First State To Sue Gun Companies

In a major lawsuit filed today, Attorney General Spitzer charged that handgun manufacturers' and wholesalers' sales and distribution practices violate New York State laws.

With the action, New York becomes the first state in the nation to sue gun manufacturers.

"For more than a year, we sought to achieve reasonable reforms through negotiations with the gun industry. It is now clear that most manufacturers and wholesalers are unwilling to give up the profits they reap from selling guns into the criminal market. So we must now seek a court to order to do what any good corporate citizen would have done voluntarily, and make our homes, streets and schools safer," said Spitzer, who was joined at a New York City news conference by U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, anti-gun violence advocates and law enforcement officials.

Spitzer's lawsuit charges nine gun manufacturers, three importers and twelve wholesalers with contributing to and maintaining a public nuisance through ongoing production and distribution practices. Among the manufacturers named are: Glock; Sturm-Ruger; Colt's; Beretta; Taurus; Bryco; and Intratec.

The lawsuit does not include the Smith & Wesson Company, the nation's largest gun manufacturer, which earlier this year signed an agreement accepting design, distribution and marketing reforms. The landmark agreement was signed by Cuomo, Spitzer and officials from 18 other state and local governments.

Secretary Cuomo said, "The gun industry should follow the lead of Smith & Wesson and accept common sense-safety standards to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals. New York's lawsuit is an important step that increases the pressure on irresponsible gun makers and distributors to agree to reforms that will prevent needless deaths and injuries caused by firearms."

Unlike lawsuits filed by more than 30 cities and counties during the last two years, the Attorney General's case focuses on a statutory provision of New York law that explicitly defines unlawfully-possessed handguns as a public nuisance.

The statute, New York Penal Law ?400.05(1), states that any unlawfully possessed, manufactured, transported or disposed handgun "is hereby declared a nuisance." For decades, police agencies in New York have used this statute to seize and destroy weapons used in crimes. This is the first application of the statute on a large scale in a civil action brought by the state.

Specifically, the manufacturers and wholesalers are accused of contributing to and maintaining the public nuisance by engaging in design and distribution practices that place guns in the hands of criminals in New York State.

The suit charges that while on notice through trace requests by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that their distribution mechanisms routinely channel guns to criminals, the defendant manufacturers and wholesalers continued providing an endless supply through the same means. They thus seek to profit from that portion of the production and sale of handguns that they know become unlawfully possessed and are used to kill and injure New Yorkers.

"We have a strong case built upon a solid legal foundation. We have cited a clear statute, we have undisputed authority to begin legal action and we can document -- using federal data -- repeated conduct that clearly violates the law," Spitzer said.

The goal of Spitzer's suit is to change the conduct of manufacturers and wholesalers. Once it is shown that gun manufacturers and wholesalers contribute to and maintain a public nuisance, the companies could be required to "abate" or fix the problem. The court could then:

  • Ban crime-friendly gun models;
  • Bar companies from supplying retailers who have a track record of selling to criminals; and
  • Appoint a monitor to supervise the gun distribution system.

In addition, the court could require manufacturers to buy back illegally-obtained guns seized in the commission of crimes.

Spitzer said the goal of the lawsuit is the same as the earlier effort to negotiate with gun companies. "We are advancing reasonable and responsible steps to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and make firearms safer for legal gun owners and their families," he said.

Spitzer noted that the lawsuit will complement gun legislation that was approved recently by the New York State Legislature and is expected to be signed by Governor Pataki. The legislation takes positive steps in the areas of gun safety and gun tracking and includes measures such as: requiring trigger locks on guns; banning assault weapons; establishing a ballistic databank; requiring background checks at gun shows; and increasing the age for obtaining a gun license.

The Spitzer lawsuit, which was filed today in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, focuses instead on the key issues of gun distribution and sales, which will greatly diminish the number of illegal guns on the streets.