|Guns and the Law|
October 29, 1999
Washington: When Bill and Hillary roared into Washington from the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, they brought with them the generous support of the trial lawyers lobby. And since Clinton & Clinton took charge of the White House, they have shown their gratitude by launching a rash of federally-inspired lawsuits aimed at the heart of legitimate, lawful, albeit politically-incorrect, American businesses.
First, it was Microsoft, then "Big Tobacco." Now, itís the firearms industry. If the Lawyer-in-chief canít get what he wants through regulation, he tries legislation. When legislation fails, he turns the matter over to his cronies at the bar for litigation. The result is a Constitutionally contorted form of legal mayhem in which the executive branch uses the judicial branch to alter laws that were never passed by the legislative Branch.
The tactic has worked so well at the federal level that itís being emulated by the states and even major cities. And itís making wealthy men and women out of many of Bill Clintonís biggest benefactors -- contingency fee trial lawyers.
Thatís exactly what happened in the tobacco litigation. Having been encouraged by the cigar-smoking Chief Executiveís demonization of the tobacco industry, 46 states brought suit against American cigarette manufacturers.
By the time a settlement was negotiated late last year, the industry agreed to pay the states more than $240 billion to cover the medical costs of "treating smoker related illnesses." But a significant amount of this settlement wonít go to offset the cost of medical care -- it will go instead to "lawyer care."
To bring suit against the tobacco companies, state attorneys general hired outside law firms on a contingency fee basis -- promising a percentage of any settlement as a "success fee." It was a sweetheart deal. When the dust settled, the outside lawyers hired by the state of Mississippi raked in $1.4 billion, fully 35 percent of the $4 billion that the state was awarded in the settlement.
Texas trial lawyers took home a whopping $3.3 billion, spread around among six law firms. No wonder these guys are so opposed to tort reform. Encouraged by the financial success of their anti-tobacco efforts, and roused by the rhetoric of their friends in the White House, the trial lawyers scrambled to go after what they believed would be another politically-incorrect, deep pocket target of opportunity -- guns.
They then set out to pursue the same strategy against the firearms industry that they had used against "big tobacco." The first step was to stop prosecuting criminals who broke existing gun laws in an effort to convince the public that the laws on the books were inadequate -- that we needed more laws.
When Congress rebuffed further infringements on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the White House encouraged "public interest groups" to declare guns a public health menace to Americaís children. Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, Al Gore, Janet Reno, even the Surgeon General all trotted out to describe in vivid detail how much of a risk guns pose to childhood health and safety.
These "soundbites" were then used repeatedly by organizations like "Handgun Control, Inc." and the "Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence" to make the case against gun makers in the same fashion that the "Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids" worked so effectively against the tobacco companies.
The collaboration among administration officials and these "public interest groups" worked. Today, over two dozen U.S. cities and counties have followed the example of the tobacco litigants and brought suit against American firearms manufacturers in an effort to "recover the healthcare and law enforcement costs of handgun violence." Sound familiar? It is.
Itís almost identical to the argument against tobacco. But the outcome isnít likely to be the same. American tobacco companies are still in business. With annual revenues in excess of $50 billion, the cigarette makers can afford to pay the ransom -- and the contingency fees for Bill Clintonís donors in the lawyersí lobby. American firearms manufacturers however, are not big, deep pockets, publicly traded conglomerates.
Their yearly sales range between $650 million and slightly more than $1 billion, and they may soon be forced out of business or offshore by the sheer cost of defending themselves. The venerable Colt firearms company has already announced that it is ceasing production of commercial hand guns -- and laying off nearly half of its work force in Connecticut.
The Clinton administration may count that as a "victory." But in the end, Bill and Hillaryís contingency fee friends may wonder what happened to their big fat paychecks when all the gun makers are gone -- and criminals can still roam the streets.