Taking a cue from successful tobacco lawsuits, officials of at least two cities - Chicago and Philadelphia - are thinking of taking similar action against handgun makers.
They want companies to pay for everything from the cost of a murder investigation to the $200 or so it costs to hose blood off city streets."You have to have somebody to haul the body away. You have to go back and start the initial investigation, and so on and so on. You're looking at literally thousands of dollars," says Patrick Camden, a Chicago police spokesman.
Chicago's lawyers are looking at ways handgun makers market their wares. They say some companies play up features that might appeal to gang members and other criminals - including an oil-resistant surface that evades fingerprints and a small size that makes a gun easier to hide.
"They make weapons more dangerous than they have to be and then they brag about it," says Lawrence Rosenthal, Chicago's deputy corporation counsel who's leading the lawsuit research.
Several private lawsuits around the country also take issue with handgun makers' marketing techniques. One filed last month in Chicago, Young vs. Bryco Arms, accuses manufacturers of making, advertising and selling guns that are public nuisances and appeal to criminals.
"They know d--- well when they send those guns off the shipping docks that there are a couple of murders in those crates," says Stephen Young, whose 19-year-old son, Andrew, was gunned down in 1996 as he drove down an Evanston, Ill., street.
But one law professor, Dan Polsby of Northwestern University, thinks the lawsuits are weak - particularly one in New York that claims gunmakers and sellers have created an oversupply of guns in Southern states that travel northward on an "iron pipeline."
"It is remarkably, remarkably silly," says Polsby, an authority on firearms law.
But he adds that he thought much the same of the tobacco lawsuits. "The example of cigarettes should serve to remind one that plaintiffs can fail a lot of times in a row before they start to succeed."
In New York, a federal court jury in March decided that a gun company and its owners were not responsible for an attack in which a young man was killed on the Brooklyn Bridge. Jurors agreed with the defense, which argued that a manufacturer cannot control what is done with its weapons after they are sold.
"Nobody wins when legal products are used illegally and harm somebody. Nobody wins when cars are stolen to commit crimes. Nobody wins when people drive drunk," says Anne Kimball, an attorney for Massachusetts-based Smith & Wesson. "But to try to ascribe the blame to the manufacturer doesn't attack the real area of concern."
That's part of the point Smith & Wesson and other handgun makers, including Glock Inc., have been making in private talks with representatives from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Philadelphia officials have been part of the talks and have, so far, held off on filing their lawsuit.