SAN FRANCISCO – A federal appeals court Thursday reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit against the gun industry in a decision expected to re-ignite debate over legislation immunizing gun makers from being sued for crimes committed with their products.
Thirty-three states already have laws exempting gun manufacturers and distributors from such suits. The House in April passed a bill to extend the prohibition on such suits nationwide and President Bush has said he would sign it. Senate Democrats have threatened to filibuster the proposal.
The 2-1 ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) reinstates a lawsuit filed against gun manufacturers and distributors whose weapons were used by a white supremacist who shot a Filipino-American postal worker to death and wounded five people -- including three children -- at a Jewish day care center in a 1999 Los Angeles-area rampage.
A Los Angeles federal judge in 2001 had thrown out the case, filed by families of the victims against Georgia-based Glock Inc., China North Industries Corp., RSR Management Corp. and RSR Wholesale Guns Seattle Inc. The case was filed under California negligence and wrongful death statutes.
Survivors claimed that several weapons companies produced, distributed and sold more firearms than legal purchasers could buy. In addition, they claimed the industry knowingly participated and facilitated an underground illegal gun market.
"I believe this is the first federal court of appeals decision to sustain a claim like this one," said Peter Nordberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Christopher Renzulli, the attorney for Glock and the RSR companies, said the Glock that the gunman, Buford Furrow (search), used to kill letter carrier Joseph Ileto was originally sold to the police department in Cosmopolis, Wash., by the RSR companies.
"How are we supposed to monitor a gun after we sell it to a law enforcement agency?" Renzulli said.
According to court records, the police department sold the weapon to a gun shop in exchange for a different model. The shop sold it to a gun collector who is alleged to have sold it to Furrow -- an ex-convict prohibited from purchasing weapons -- at a gun show in Spokane, Wash.
Renzulli said he was considering asking an 11-judge panel of the appeals court to rehear the case.
Charles Dick, China North Industries' attorney, said he was reviewing the decision and declined comment. That company made the short-barrel rifle Furrow used in the community center.
In the decision reinstating the case, Judge Richard Paez wrote that Glock's marketing strategy creates a "supply of post-police guns that can be sold through unlicensed dealers without background checks to illegal buyers."
The judge also wrote that Glock and China North supply weapons to distributors "who are responsible for the sales of guns that end up in the hands of criminals."
Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall dissented, saying the court was twisting the law to obtain a "just result" for the victims.
Furrow is serving life in prison without parole for the 1999 shootings.
Since 1998, at least 33 municipalities, counties and states have sued gun makers, many claiming that manufacturers, through irresponsible marketing, allowed weapons to reach criminals. None of the suits has resulted in a manufacturer or distributor paying any damages.
Private groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also have sued, saying guns "led to disproportionate numbers of injuries, deaths and other damages" among minorities. That case was thrown out of federal court in July.
The Senate probably will consider the immunity bill early next year, said Will Hart, spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig (search), R-Idaho, a leading proponent of the legislation. Craig believes he has the votes to force the bill through the Senate despite filibuster threats, Hart said.