WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to be drawn into a dispute over whether cities can sue gun manufacturers over crime costs, protecting weapon makers from a round of government lawsuits.
New Orleans was the first city to file a lawsuit accusing gun makers of selling unsafe products. The case was blocked by the Louisiana Legislature, which passed a law retroactively banning those types of suits. Another 26 states have passed similar laws.
The Supreme Court declined without comment to review a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling that upheld that state's prohibition. The refusal apparently ends cities' efforts to sue gun makers despite state bans.
The gun litigation began after states sued tobacco companies to recover state money spent on smoking-related illnesses. New Orleans filed its suit in 1998 and was copied by dozens of cities and counties around the nation.
The lawsuits sought to force manufacturers to repay hundreds of millions of dollars that local governments have spent dealing with gun violence. State laws made many of those suits moot.
"The Legislature enacted these laws for a single purpose: to protect the special interests of one favored industry," New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial said in urging the Supreme Court to take the appeal. "The Founding Fathers sought to prevent precisely this sort of targeted legislation."
Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster had sought the 1999 law and said the state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year "lays to rest, at least in Louisiana for a while, this business of going after legal corporations."
The state court said it is unconstitutional to pass laws that retroactively affect private citizens, not local governments. The court also agreed with gun makers that the lawsuit illegally intrudes on the state's police power to regulate guns.
"Without question, the city's lawsuit here threatened the state of Louisiana's exercise of its police powers in maintaining uniform, centralized control over the regulation of firearms within the state," the industry told the Supreme Court.
The companies, including Smith & Wesson Corp. and Glock Corp., said that New Orleans tried to overstep its bounds with the lawsuit: "However described, New Orleans is still a city, not the 51st state."
The first tobacco lawsuit was filed in 1994 by Mississippi. Cigarette makers settled out of court with states for $246 billion.
The National Rifle Association has aggressively pushed state laws to pre-empt local government lawsuits.
A district judge in Louisiana had ruled that the state law was unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court disagreed, prompting the appeal to the high court.
Gun companies had asked the Supreme Court not to disturb "this unique, first-of-its-kind ruling."
The case is Morial v. Smith & Wesson, 01-181.