US mayors to sue gun makers

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INSPIRED BY the lucrative war waged by US states on the tobacco companies, American cities are banding together to fight another deathly plague: guns. City mayors, meeting at their winter conference in Washington, announced yesterday that they were were co-ordinating multiple lawsuits against the big firearms manufacturers and would press Congress for a new "omnibus" federal gun law.

The campaign, led by the mayors of cities that have already lodged lawsuits against major gun manufacturers, is targeted at the gun lobby's chief weak spots. The mayors want legislation that sets a so-called "one gun a month" limit on the firearms that an individual may buy, standardising the rules across the country.

The mayor of Philadelphia, Edward Rendell, who has been a leader in the fight for gun control, said it made no sense for cities and counties to have "one gun a month" laws, as some already do, if people could buy as many guns as they wanted on the other side of the city border. Joining Mr Rendell are the mayors of Dade County in Florida, which covers much of greater Miami, Bridgeport in Connecticut - both of which launched lawsuits against gun-makers this week - and the mayors of Chicago and New Orleans, which launched their suits last year.

As well as standardising purchasing legislation nationwide, the mayors want to close the "gun show loophole", where unlicensed gun shows may sell without the requisite background checks on the buyer's police record.

The mayors are calling for firearms to be covered by consumer product safety legislation, and for compulsory safety devices to be fitted, including child trigger locks and - in time - "smart" identity codes that enable only the licensed owner to fire the weapon.

The co-ordinated push for increased federal legislation is likely to be fiercely resisted by states and counties where gun ownership is seen as a fundamental civil right, especially rural areas and the South. It will also be resisted by the gun-manufacturers who sense the build-up of a populist campaign similar to the one that extracted $206bn from tobacco companies at the end of last year.

The five mayors, all of whom are among the new breed of "manager" mayors, for whom administrative competence and efficiency are elevated above ideology, are united in their quest for federal legislation and intend to co-ordinate and consult on their separate lawsuits in the expectation that as many as 40 cities will have brought lawsuits by the summer. They are also being advised by many of the same lawyers who advised on suing the tobacco companies. But they differ on whether their individual recourse to the law for compensation will result in the sort of class-action suit that the states co-ordinated against the tobacco companies. The diversity of state and city legislation across the US makes joint action complicated.

Edward Rendell told the mayors' conference: "There may be a lot of cities filing in the spring, but there will be different lawsuits individually tailored to the laws and problems, facts and circumstances of each jurisdiction." He also warned of the opposition's strength: "I don't want to hold out false hope. We have seen nothing but stalling and fast talking and the usual rationale that guns don't kill people, people kill people."

The anti-gun mayors are outspoken and determined. Introducing his city's lawsuit this week, the mayor of Bridgeport, Joe Ganim, said: "We are saying to the handgun industry: from now on, you are responsible for the costs associated with your dangerous products, not Bridgeport's families."

The mayor of Dade County, Alex Penelas, presented his lawsuit against a backdrop of tables covered with guns tagged with the names of dead children. He said: "We will not allow the gun industry to escape accountability ... They have killed our children by the dozens."