A short walk from my home in New Haven stands the farm of that prototypical Connecticut Yankee, Eli Whitney. In 1798 Whitney hit on a bold new scheme: interchangeable parts for muskets. Through Thomas Jefferson, he secured a contract from Congress for an astonishing 10,000 muskets. From Whitney’s interchangeable barrels flowed mass production, defense contracting and the modern firearms industry.
Two hundred years and about twenty miles of I-95 separate Whitney’s old manufacturing grounds from the house at 207 Earl Avenue in Bridgeport where third grader Leroy (B.J.) Brown Jr. and his mother Karen Clarke were shot to death in January–killed, according to police, by the man whom B.J. had witnessed gunning down his mother’s fiancé months earlier. He was not the first 8-year-old to fall to bullets in Bridgeport: In 1997 Tynisha Gathers was accidentally shot dead by her 10-year-old sister. In part because of shootings of children, on January 27 Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim announced a $100 million product liability lawsuit against the gun industry. The proposed damages reflect not just the incalculable cost of human life but the all-too-calculable public cost of aiding shooting victims: $14,000 to treat a teenager who is shot, plus police, EMTs and other emergency services.
Ganim is not alone. In a Brooklyn federal court over the past few weeks, a jury has been hearing the first negligence case against the entire gun industry to make it to trial. Miami, New Orleans and Chicago recently announced similar lawsuits, and other cities are warming up cases. “The survival of a domestic gun manufacturing industry is at stake,” says a trade association official.
These anticorporate suits represent a politically potent departure from past gun control efforts that, in attempting to restrain individual owners, inadvertently prepared the ground for NRA Second Amendment populism. New Orleans and Miami, both aided by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, claim manufacturers have failed “to develop and implement” safety locks preventing unauthorized use. Although I’m all for finding any way of saving lives, I must admit to some skepticism about holding gun companies accountable for technology that doesn’t yet exist. In November, the Handgun Center lost a dangerous-design case in Oakland against Beretta. And the argument is too easily mooted by gunmakers: On January 29, for instance, Colt announced a ten-year plan for developing a radio-controlled “smart gun” mechanism to prevent weapons from being fired by anyone but their owners. (Colt, with $87 million in sales last year, wants the federal government to pay for its smart gun R&D.)
In Chicago and Brooklyn, the argument takes a different turn: These lawsuits charge that the gun industry evades local gun regulations and feeds the violent-crime market by deliberately oversupplying weapons to areas with weak gun laws. In Chicago, which bans possession or sale of handguns within city limits, gun companies saturate suburban shops with many more guns than would be sold in the average commuter town. In a series of undercover stings, Chicago police found that suburban dealers actively pursue sales to city residents.
The mother of all gun marketing cases is Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, now on trial in a Brooklyn federal court. In 1993, 17-year-old Njuzi Ray Jr. was killed by a stray bullet from an Accu-Tek semiautomatic. Freddie Hamilton (Ray’s mother), seven other survivor-families and their lawyer, Elisa Barnes, hope to prove that the industry floods Southern states (no permits required, no fingerprint checks, no ownership records), knowing that “straw buyers” will steer the weapons north. Barnes has already succeeded in prying crucial data from a notoriously secretive industry. It’s now known that 90 percent of handguns used in New York crimes are legally purchased out of state–half of them in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Barnes has shown that gun companies fail to meet minimal standards for inventory control or tracking considered routine for other hazardous products, from explosives to scuba gear.
The Hamilton trial implicitly links today’s gun market to the emerging global weapons economy. When traditional markets–the military and adult males–maxed out around 1990, gunmakers purveyed new models and advertising designed to appeal to women and younger shooters. The gunmakers’ predatory overseas marketing spree–$6 billion in worldwide small-arms trade a year–poses a global danger. According to a recent UN report, “the excessive and destabilizing accumulation and transfer of small arms and light weapons” is the engine of crime and the increasing incidence of civil war in many countries. Sierra Leone and Liberia are just Bridgeport and Brooklyn writ large: As in US cities, straw buyers purchase weapons on the open market and then drop them into the hands of local warring factions. In the face of rising calls to restrict this transnational small-arms dumping (with dark-skinned people often the victims, whether in Bridgeport or Freetown), the NRA has sudden concern for indigenous culture: “Non-hunting societies should not seek to impose their values on hunting societies,” says its representative to a UN gun panel.
Whatever that Brooklyn jury decides–or the juries in the other cities–there’s a clear and global chain of corporate responsibility for the deaths of B.J. Brown, Karen Clarke, Tynisha Gathers and Njuzi Ray. This is a public health issue, a civil rights issue, a corporate crime issue. As Bridgeport State Senator Alvin Penn puts it, “There is a subculture of drugs, money and gangs, and guns are what drives them.” Guns are “the basic tool that keeps this subculture together. Enough is enough.