The Buck Doesn't Stop at City Hall

by Sean Carter

It's been said that "to err is human; to blame it on someone else is even more human." Well, if this is true, then city mayors across the country are superhuman.

After viewing the success state governments had suing the tobacco industry, city officials began suing gun manufacturers. In 1998, New Orleans became the first city to sue gun makers, seeking reimbursement for law enforcement and medical costs associated with gun violence. Since then, more than 30 cities have filed similar lawsuits.

At first, these lawsuits met with about as much success as a typical Hollywood marriage. In fact, several of the lawsuits were dismissed immediately. And in other cases, states passed laws granting immunity to the gun makers.

However, the lawyers bringing these cases know that if at first you don't succeed, you're about average. And sure enough, they're now starting to see the pot of contingency fees at the end of the rainbow. Recently, a New Jersey state appellate court ruled that a lawsuit filed by Newark, Camden and Jersey City could proceed. This is a remarkably inane decision, even by appellate court standards.

In this case, the gun makers correctly point out that they shouldn't be held responsible because manufacturing a gun doesn't "cause" violence. Of course, causation is a difficult concept to grasp. In fact, with the exception of explaining how I used to charge $400 per hour, it's probably the trickiest concept in the law.

Think about it. You live in a cause and effect world in which almost every action you take affects someone else down the line. For instance, let's suppose you buy the last newspaper at a newsstand. Sometime later, an unemployed man comes to buy a newspaper but you've taken the last one. He becomes despondent because he can't look through the classified ads for a job. Therefore, he decides to get drunk at a bar instead.

While in the bar, he strikes up a conversation with two other unemployed men. They decide to rob a bank to solve their financial woes. Unfortunately, they are no smarter than they are poor and end up robbing a blood bank instead. Hours later, a bus crashes and several people die because of a blood shortage.

In a technical sense, you "caused" these deaths by snatching up the last paper at the newsstand. However, it would be ridiculous for you to be held liable for these deaths because your action of buying a newspaper was too far removed from the ultimate harm.

The gun manufacturers argue that holding them liable for gun violence is equally ridiculous. Gun manufacturers only supply guns to licensed distributors. The guns then make their way through the chain of supply and ultimately, end up in the hands of law-abiding citizens. However, through theft and the black market, some guns manage to make their way into the hands of criminals.

I have to agree with the gun manufacturers on this point. After all, guns don't kill people; bullets do. It's true! You can only do so much damage by throwing a gun at someone. Therefore, if anyone should be sued, it should be bullet manufacturers.

Besides, in my view, the cities have no standing to bring a case anyway. The cities claim that gun violence increases their costs of providing law enforcement and health care. However, lots of activities increase costs for cities, such as when its citizens have children. Every new child in the system increases the costs of providing schools, playground and bullet-proof vests for teachers. Should cities be able to sue parents, jazz musicians and the makers of tequila for child births? I think we would all agree the answer is "no", unless we are talking about suing Kenny G.

Finally, I find these lawsuits to be the ultimate form of passing the buck. Cities are blaming gun manufacturers for crime when the cities are at least as culpable for the problem. For instance, the case in New Jersey was brought by Camden, Newark and Jersey City; three cities with notoriously poor school systems. Every year, each of these cities fails to properly educate a large number of children in their charge. Some of these children then mistakenly turn to crime. And yet, the cities claim that the gun manufacturers are responsible for this problem.

In all seriousness, I understand that gun violence is a serious problem with terrible emotional, as well as economic, costs. That being said, it isn't fair to make gun manufacturers shoulder the entire burden of this problem for which all of society is to blame.

Sean Carter is a lawyer, public speaker, and the author of "If It Does Not Fit, Must You Acquit? - Your Humorous Guide to the Law". He can be reached at