In the late summer and fall of 1997, small news leaks began appearing that Mayor Edward Rendell of Philadelphia (who is now governor of Pennsylvania) was thinking about suing the firearms industry to recover the medical costs of treating gunshot victims, much as state attorneys general had sued tobacco manufacturers. “Rendell is quietly laying the groundwork for a lawsuit against gun manufacturers,” read the first report, bringing a small smile to lips of readers who realized that tipping off the press is not quite consistent with doing something quietly. The leaks provided little information but provoked a great deal of talk. What was actually going on within Rendell’s inner circle, however, was shrouded in secrecy.
Then, on January 9, 1998, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Rendell’s lawyers were ready to file. The article identified Temple University law school professor David Kairys and David Cohen, a partner in a leading Philadelphia law firm and one of Rendell’s closest confidants, as the principal lawyers. “Kairys declined to discuss the lawsuit,” the paper reported, although Kairys did talk to the paper about the legal theory of public nuisance on which, the Inquirer said, the lawsuit was to be based.
The Rendell administration never filed that lawsuit. It is my own somewhat educated guess that the leaks had come from Professor Kairys, who was fighting a losing battle with Cohen to persuade Rendell to go ahead with the litigation. Perhaps Cohen thought the lawsuit was technically weak. Or perhaps he thought it a politically foolish endeavor for a politician with statewide ambitions. Nearly 250 rural miles separate Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and nearly 165,000 voting NRA members live in Pennsylvania. In any event, there was no suit. Rendell decided instead to try to reach a deal–never ultimately brought to fruition–in which Philadelphia would not file suit in return for the gun industry’s agreeing to certain reforms and the NRA’s lobbying Congress to fund a special project of aggressive federal prosecutions of gun crimes in Philadelphia.
But others seized upon the idea. Something of a race began among the nation’s mayors to see who would take the lead in this movement, as Mississippi’s Attorney General Michael Moore had in the tobacco litigation. New Orleans’s charismatic mayor, Marc Morial, won the race to the courthouse. The authors of Outgunned: Up Against the NRA–The First Complete Insider Account of the Battle Over Gun Control tell us that when, in October 1998, Rendell learned New Orleans was about to file an action against handgun manufacturers, their trade associations and pawn shops selling guns used in crimes in New Orleans, he telephoned Mayor Morial. “This is my deal!” he allegedly screamed. “So back off and let me proceed. I’m damned close to reaching a settlement with the gun companies.”
Morial was unmoved. On October 30, New Orleans filed its action against fifteen handgun manufacturers, their trade associations and New Orleans pawn shops that were selling handguns. On November 12 Chicago filed its own lawsuit. Miami and Bridgeport, Connecticut, which were represented by the same lawyers, filed separate actions in their home states on January 27, 1999; Cleveland filed on April 9; and consolidated actions were filed by Detroit and Wayne County, Michigan, on April 26.
In the midst of this burst of legal activity, on April 20, 1999, two students, armed with a TEC DC-9 semiautomatic assault pistol and a small arsenal of other weapons, entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and killed a teacher and twelve students and wounded more than thirty in a span of just minutes. The nation was stunned, and many thought the municipal lawsuits would benefit from a tidal wave of revulsion against the gun violence. Ultimately, thirty-five municipalities–including Boston, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia (which filed after a new mayor replaced Rendell), San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington, DC, plus New York State–filed a total of twenty-four lawsuits against gun manufacturers and dealers.