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Since the state attorneys general settled their lawsuit against the big tobacco companies in 1998, state governments have become more deeply dependent than ever on tobacco revenues: They suffer financial losses if the share of tobacco sales held by "participating" tobacco manufacturers-that is, those in on the deal-drops substantially. One result is that the states are cooperating on measures designed to prop up the financial interests of the participating manufacturers. They have aimed punitive laws and legal actions, for example, against the companies' competitors.
When big-city mayors and some federal officials, notably Clinton-era housing secretary Andrew Cuomo, decided to sign up for a litigation crusade against the firearms industry, they floated two major themes. First, they said, gunmakers and dealers had improperly "flooded" the market with weapons, ignoring indications that some were likely to fall into the hands of bad guys. Second, they had refused to adopt various supposedly promising safety measures intended to reduce the rate of accidental or deliberate gun injury, including "smart gun" technologies, integral trigger locks, and child-proofing devices, among others.
By an amusing irony, the cities that filed suit also happened to serve as some of the nation's biggest suppliers of guns, especially of "personal protection" firearms-that is, the kind intended for use against people rather than critters. The resale of city-owned weaponry-police surplus, as well as guns seized from lawbreakers-is a prized cash cow for city administrations. New Orleans, for example, at the very moment of announcing its first-in-the-country suit against gunmakers, had just finished scoring one of the biggest gun-resale deals ever when it sold through a broker some 7,300 guns, including TEC-9s and various other semiautomatics whose importation and manufacture Congress had banned in 1994. Detroit unloaded a remarkable 13-plus tons of weaponry not long before filing its suit.
The cities' lawyers proceeded to argue that courts should find gun marketers legally culpable for not having instituted a series of safeguards, far over and above the requirements of applicable federal or state law, to make sure guns did not wind up in the hands of inappropriate users. But the cities themselves had followed few if any safeguards of this kind in their own sales. One way of lessening the risk that surplus police guns will fall into criminal hands, for example, is to stipulate that they be resold only to other police departments. But attaching such strings can cut by half the amount that used weapons fetch on the market, so the authorities in New Orleans, Boston, and elsewhere had not seen fit to do so. Were the lawyers' theories to be taken seriously, the cities might have to worry about winding up in court as defendants, not plaintiffs.
Meanwhile, the state of Connecticut, whose Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was a prominent cheerleader of the gun suits, as recently as 1990 had actually been in the business of subsidizing gunmaking, allocating $25 million in state pension money to keep the locally based company Colt in business.
To top it all, in their capacity as major purchasers of guns for police use, the cities had shown very little interest in the safety technologies their lawyers now claimed were so vital-the integral trigger locks, keypad codes, and so forth. Nor had they taken steps to add such safety devices for the protection of civilian repurchasers. Only two of the 7,300 guns that New Orleans sold, for example, were equipped with the safety locks now said to be morally obligatory for conscientious dealers to install.