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Gun makers under legal attack for pushing improved weapons; City lawsuits target innovation, marketing


As cities prepare to sue the gun industry for not taking steps to keep their products out of criminals' hands, critics of the industry are building an argument that gun makers began making more powerful handguns to make up for stagnant sales and that these guns quickly became popular among criminals.

While the marketing innovation increased the gun makers' profits, critics contend, it also helped account for the rise in homicides in the 1980s and the greater seriousness of gunshot wounds in recent years.

The latest and most detailed addition to the argument is made by Tom Diaz, a former congressional expert on handgun control, in his book, "Making A Killing: The Business of Guns In America," published last month by the New Press.

Over the past decade, gun makers have found that higher-caliber, rapid-fire pistols that can be easily concealed sell best, Diaz writes. By designing such pistols, they have gotten gun lovers addicted to more powerful weapons.

"The gun industry has deliberately enhanced its profits by increasing the lethality -- the killing power -- of its products," writes Diaz, a senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center in Washington, a research and advocacy group.

This argument may become part of the case against gun makers, as a growing number of cities contend in lawsuits that manufacturers concentrated on making their handguns more deadly rather than incorporating new safety devices. Some of the cities say the gun makers have data showing that their products were being sold in ways that increased their chances of ending up in the hands of criminals.

An example of this kind of accusation was made in a lawsuit brought in Brooklyn on behalf of victims in seven shootings against 25 gun manufacturers. In a jury verdict returned on Thursday in U.S. District Court, 15 of the arms makers were found negligent and nine were held liable for damages. The gun manufacturers were accused in the suit of oversupplying stores in Southern states that have lax gun laws, knowing that some of the guns would be bought by people in New York City who would resell them to criminals and juveniles.

Five cities have sued the gun makers: New Orleans, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta and Bridgeport, Conn. Cities planning to file suits soon include Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Gary, Ind. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has said he is considering filing a suit.

Diaz has built on the work of Dr. Garren Wintemute, an emergency room physician and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis, who reported that the new generation of semiautomatic handguns introduced in the 1980s led to an increase in the number of wounds in gunshot victims and made people shot by handguns more likely to die.

Richard Feldman, the executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, a trade association, said that Diaz was drawing a faulty conclusion from a normal business practice. "Just like the fashion industry, the firearms industry likes to encourage new products to get people to buy its products," Feldman said.

Gun manufacturers should not have to worry that their guns are becoming more deadly or likely to cause worse wounds, Feldman said. "I don't think that enters into our calculations," he said. "If the gun has more stopping power, it is a more effective weapon."

In addition, Feldman said, "We design weapons, not for the bad guys, but for the good guys." If criminals happen to get their hands on a gun, it is not the manufacturer's fault, he said.

"If we could design a gun for the bad guy, they would all shoot backward," he added.

The increase in pistols that are more deadly began with a shift in design from revolvers, which generally hold six rounds, to faster-firing semiautomatic pistols with magazines capable of holding 10 or more rounds of ammunition, Diaz argues. The next step was the introduction of higher-caliber ammunition, moving from the older and smaller .22- or .38-caliber pistols to the larger 9-millimeter or .40-caliber handguns.

More recently, the gun industry introduced yet another change, producing very small, lightweight pistols known as "pocket rockets," which are easily concealed, but have more firepower.

In his book, Diaz says that the gun industry was led to its strategy of innovation because demand for its traditional products -- rifles, shotguns and revolvers -- had slowed as the number of Americans who hunt began to decline and the end of the military draft reduced familiarity with guns.

In 1996, there were 14 million hunters in America, down from 20.6 million in 1975, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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