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Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 21:24 GMT
White House threatens lawsuit on guns
Gunshop Millions of guns are in the possession of US citizens

By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

The US Government is threatening to file a national lawsuit against gun manufacturers alleging that guns and their marketing played a role in violence in public housing.

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  • The Clinton administration hopes that the threat of a lawsuit on behalf of some or all of the nation's 3,100 local housing authorities would motivate gun manufacturers to negotiate a settlement with 28 cities and counties that have brought similar suits against the industry.

    The effort is seen as a new tactic in the Clinton administration's efforts to bring about gun reform.

    An appropriate thing to do
    President Clinton
    President Clinton failed in his efforts to push gun reform legislation through Congress in the wake of the high-profile shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

    Asked whether the new initiative was an attempt to work without Congress, President Clinton told a news conference his new attempt was "an appropriate thing to do."

    But he stressed his administration would continue to work with Congress as it had successfully been doing.

    Leverage against the industry

    Several figures in the administration stressed that the goal of the possible lawsuit was to encourage a settlement and not to foster additional litigation.

    White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said that a lawsuit was not imminent.

    Bill Clinton Mr Clinton says more legislation is needed
    "It is our hope that the negotiations going on now reach fruition. We don't need protracted litigation," Mr Lockhart said.

    "That's part of what the discussions going on now are looking at, to try to catalyse some fundamental reform in the way gun makers do business, as far as production and marketing."

    Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo said: "If all parties act in good faith, we'll stay at the negotiating table. If not, we are prepared to litigate. We feel we're in a strong position."

    President Clinton defended the proposed lawsuit.

    "The litigation which is being initiated by public housing authorities has a good grounding in fact. There are 10,000 gun crimes every year in the largest public housing authorities. Now they spend a billion dollars on security." he said.

    The housing authorities are not seeking money from gun manufacturers, but rather are seeking a remedy to gun violence, Mr Clinton added.

    He also called for greater regulation of gun dealers. Citing a study released by New York Senator Charles Schumer, he said that that 1% of the gun dealers sell 50% of the guns involved in gun crimes.

    "That is a stunning fact, and there ought to be something done about that," said the president.

    It is our hope that the negotiations going on now reach fruition. We don't need protracted litigation.
    White House spokesman Joe Lockhart
    The proposed federal suit is similar to ones filed by cities and counties across the nation who allege gun manufacturers have sold defective products and marketed them in ways that encourage their use in crimes.

    The suits from cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New Orleans and San Francisco seek to recoup the costs of gun violence, much in same way that lawsuits against the tobacco industry sought to pay for the healthcare costs of smokers born by states.

    Legal victory from legislative defeat

    Much of what the administration wants was contained in gun control legislation rejected by Congress.

    If successful in reaching an agreement with the gun industry, the administration would be able to claim victory from defeat.

    The White House wants gun manufacturers to agree to:

    • Better control of gun dealers
    • An end to advertising of guns as impervious to handprints
    • Added safety controls on guns.

    The administration wants gun manufacturers to agree not to sell guns to dealers who do business at gun shows and to end sales to dealers who have a large number of guns linked to crimes.

    The administration also wants the gun industry to add safety controls to weapons including intelligent safety locks that prevent guns from being fired by anyone but the owner and prevent the guns from being fired when the magazines are removed.

    Uneven legal results

    Lawyers have yet to find a magic bullet against the gun industry.

    A judge dismissed the city of Cincinnati's lawsuit in October, but another judge has allowed the suit brought by the city of Atlanta to proceed and ordered the industry to open its files.

    And a judge has refused to throw out a lawsuit by the city of Chicago that alleged that gun makers' marketing tactics contributed to the deaths of three men in that city.

    In February, a federal jury in New York ordered three gun makers to pay more than $4m in damages to a shooting victim and the families of six others.

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    See also:
    16 Sep 99 |  Americas
    Firearms: A civil liberties issue?
    16 Sep 99 |  Americas
    Analysis: Recent gun legislation
    19 Jun 99 |  Americas
    US Congress rejects gun control bill
    04 Nov 99 |  Americas
    Clinton alarm over US violence

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