According to a lawsuit filed by 12 California cities and counties, gun makers are behaving recklessly when they sell firearms to distributors licensed by the federal government. The suit argues that instead of relying on the government to make sure wholesalers and retailers comply with the law, manufacturers should conduct their own investigations, seeking to weed out distributors through which guns pass on the way to criminals.

In support of this theory, the plaintiffs are citing a 2000 letter from an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) in which he tried to deputize a Miami-based gun maker. The agent suggested that Taurus International Manufacturing install a government computer and use it to track sales of guns used in crimes. "If your corporation determines that there is an unusually high number of Taurus firearms being traced to certain" wholesalers and retailers, the agent wrote, "we suggest you look at their business practices more carefully."

For supporters of the lawsuit, the fact that Taurus declined to serve as the BATF's Miami branch means it should be held liable for crimes committed with its guns. Dennis Henigan, legal director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence, complains that "manufacturers basically sell to anyone with a federal firearms license." But if a license from the government is not a signal that it's OK to supply a distributor with firearms, what is the point of the license? Perhaps the cities and counties that are seeking damages from gun makers should be suing the BATF instead.