In a victory for the US firearms industry, a federal jury cleared 45 handgun manufacturers and distributors of allegations that their marketing practices have stoked violence in black and Hispanic neighbourhoods.
The jury in New York deliberated for five days before reaching its verdict yesterday in a closely watched case that now goes to the judge for a final decision.
The panel was unable to reach a verdict regarding 23 other defendants in the lawsuit, brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), one of the oldest and most active civil rights groups in the US.
The lawsuit alleged the firearms industry knew corrupt dealers were supplying their products to criminals in minority communities and did nothing to stop it.
Rather than monetary damages, the lawsuit sought to force distributors to restrict sales to dealers who have storefront outlets, prohibit sales to gun show dealers and limit individual purchasers to one handgun a month.
The defendants and the gun industry argued that it would be unfair and unlawful to hold manufacturers liable for the criminal use of a legal product.
They also said that legislatures – not courts – should set standards for sales.
“Nobody wants to have someone selling to criminals,” James Dorr, lawyer for firearms manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co., said during closing arguments. “This industry certainly doesn’t.”
In an unusual but not unprecedented ruling, US District Judge Jack Weinstein decided ahead of time that the jury would play only an advisory role, and that he would make the final decision in the case.
Both sides will submit written arguments interpreting the jury’s verdict within 30 days.
The verdict followed more than five weeks of testimony in the lawsuit against 68 defendants, including Smith & Wesson, Glock, Colt Manufacturing and other major gun makers and distributors.
The jury found Glock and Colt not liable, but did not reach a decision on Smith & Wesson.
The plaintiffs built much of their case on previously sealed data – provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms under court order – detailing sales histories of weapons recovered at crime scenes in New York state from 1996 to 2000.
An expert witness testified that an analysis found 11% of handguns sold in 1996 were used in rapes, robberies, assaults and murders by 2000.
The defendants knew they were feeding a pool of illegal handguns, and “purposely turned their head away from the problem”, NAACP lawyer Elisa Barnes said during closing arguments.
“They said, ‘It’s not our worry’.”
Defence experts claimed the analysis was flawed.
They said their own studies found that most guns used by criminals come from a secondary market of millions of used or stolen guns.
“Common sense tells you that the vast majority of guns are acquired by criminals in the secondary market, not from retailers,” Mr Dorr said.