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Mayor Williams Announces District's Lawsuit Against Gun Industry

Thursday, January 20, 2000
Lawsuit seeks financial compensation and changes in distribution practices

Mayor Anthony A. Williams

announced the District of Columbia today filed a lawsuit against the gun industry. The suit in D.C. Superior Court was filed on behalf of the District and Bryant Lawson, a victim who was shot and paralyzed in Northeast D.C. in January 1997.

"This gun lawsuit will protect our citizens and our children from the dangers of gun violence, by demanding that gun manufacturers change their practices and by financially punishing them for past negligence," said the Mayor.

The District's lawsuit is the first "state" case against the gun industry. Like the 50 states, the District has statutory authority to recover Medicaid expenses resulting from industry misconduct. All 50 states and the District used this authority to sue the tobacco industry.

The case seeks not only financial compensation for costs incurred by the District as a result of gun violence, but also seeks changes in the gun industry's distribution practices. The District will seek to recover damages for governmental health care expenditures that can be attributed to gunshot injuries, including Medicaid expenses, unreimbursed costs of services provided by D.C. General Hospital and other District facilities, and costs of providing health care for injured police officers.

"By bringing lawsuits that seek to hold gun manufacturers financially responsible for the costs that their products impose on the public, the District and other governmental plaintiffs can provide the industry with a powerful incentive to reform its distribution practices," said the Mayor.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the lawsuit is just one part of the District's comprhensive approach to reducing gun violence. Other aspects of the District's strategy include aggressive law enforcement, gun buy-back programs and public education efforts such as Operation Ceasefire . Ramsey said MPDC officers recover an average of 2,000 illegal crime guns a year, and last summer's Operation Gun Tip buy-back program resulted in the recovery of another 2,912 firearms.

"Even with these and other dilegent efforts, our city remains awash in illegal firearms that are not only deadly, but also far too easy to obtain," the Chief said. "Most of these guns originate not through some mysterious 'black market,' but with a sale by a federally licensed firearms dealer. Getting the gun industry to come to the table and tighten up the loopholes in its distribution system, as this lawsuit seeks, will go a long way toward reducing the number of illegal guns on our streets and they violence they help fuel," Ramsey added.

The Chief said that while homicides in the District declined 11 percent last year, more than 80 percent of last year's murders were committed with a firearm. Another 394 people were shot and wounded in 514 shootings last year.

The primary claim in the District's lawsuit pertains to the Strict Liability Act of 1990, which makes manufacturers of automatic and many high-capacity semi-automatic firearms strictly liable for injuries and deaths that result from the use of their products in the District. In addition to alleging strict liability, the District alleges that the gun industry's negligent and reckless distribution practices have allowed firearms to flow unlawfully into the District, thereby undermining the District's stringent gun control laws . The District further alleges that the ready availability of handguns and other high-capacity automatic and semi-automatic firearms for unlawful possession in the District is a "public nuisance" for which the gun industry is responsible.

Twenty-three gun manufacturers and two gun distributors are named in the lawsuit. The lawsuit was prepared by the Office of Corporation Counsel, with pro bono legal assistance provided by the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering , the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence .

The Washington Lawyers' Committee announced today the formation of a Gun Violence Advisory Committee to support the District's lawsuit. The Advisory Committee will assist the Washington Lawyers' Committee in locating individuals who may have suffered gun-related injuries or lost close relatives to gun incidents in the District, and therefore may be eligible to join the lawsuit. Anyone who may be interested in learning more about the lawsuit is encouraged to call the Washington Lawyers' Committee at 202.319.1000, ext. GUN (fax: 202.319.1010).

For more information, contact:

  • Germonique Jones

    Mayor's Office of Communications