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City suits are taxing

By Guy Smith
web posted August 13, 2001

If any episode of California political history will seal our national image as the "land of fruits and nuts", then it will be the lawsuits filed by cities and counties against firearm manufacturers. This reputation will not come from the foolhardy suits themselves, but in how these public agencies doggedly pursue them with your tax dollars.

We Pay For This?

In May of 1999, a number of California cities and counties filed simultaneous lawsuits against firearm manufacturers (which to my layman's legal mind constitutes racketeering and is ripe for a RICO retaliation).

Most of these suits were filed under the guise of "public nuisance" statutes. The whimsical theory applied by lawyers – armed with your tax dollars – is that like a factory polluting a public water supply and jeopardizing the health and welfare of the community, firearm makers were supplying the source of gunshot injuries. Since governments occasionally pay for services resulting from these injuries, they have a tenuous standing as plaintiffs on your behalf.

What is staggering about this perspective is the complete dismissal of reality and responsibility, the former being a commentary on the mental health of certain city attorneys. The polluter has an immediate impact on citizens by supplying poison directly to everyone with a kitchen sink. Yet, in the case of firearm manufacturers, the alleged legal minds of California governments fail to contemplate the involvement of third parties.

To the best of my knowledge, no sales representatives from Colt or Glock have participated in drive-by shootings. Indeed, if one of their weapons has been used in a crime it likely passed through at least four intermediaries – the wholesaler, the retailer, the original purchaser, and the suspect – before arriving at the scene of a crime.

Given this rather glaring oversight, one would believe that this variety of lawsuits lacks merit. Indeed, this is the case. Around the country similar suits have faced the scrutiny of the courts, with the tally resembling the aftermath of a malcontent tornado:

New York – dismissed.
Miami – dismissed.
Bridgeport – dismissed.
Cincinnati – dismissed.
New Orleans – dismissed.
Philadelphia – dismissed.
Chicago – dismissed.
Baltimore – dismissed.

Yet California government employees armed with law degrees, tax dollars, and an uncommon lack of sensibility, continue to trudge through the courts, investing their salaries, the paychecks of their staffs, the resources of the courts, judges, clerks and police departments in the pursuit of an inevitable defeat. I normally applaud determination, but here an exception is warranted.

The Research

It becoming obvious that the agencies involved in these frivolous filings are aware of the mounting political liability. Last August I employed the California Public Records Act to obtain the summary cost-to-date of these suits. A snowstorm of letters flew from my humble abode to Sacramento, Alameda, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other locations of litigious imprudence. In each I requested not specific or detailed accounting of their activities, but a one-number figure reporting how many buckets of taxpayer dollars had been poured on the pyre of stupidity.

And the silence was deafening.

Repeat letters had to be sent with not-so-veiled threats of litigation to enforce the Public Records Act. Slowly some numbers trickled in, but some cities obfuscated information or have flatly refused to provide data (and if any attorney would care to take on a pro-bono case to enforce disclosure, I am a ready plaintiff and easy to find). To date the city of Sacramento and the county of Alameda have steadfastly declined to provide information, while Inglewood simply refuses to acknowledge receiving my letters. Some reporting cities have provided suspiciously limited data (West Hollywood claims they have spent nothing, while San Mateo County claims only the cost of one FedEx package). All of these agencies declined to include estimated costs for the manpower, which anyone who has had the misfortune to be in court will attest is the most expensive part of litigation.

Cost to date

The only cost we can be 100% sure of are those that have been reported, which add-up to a mere $88,123. San Francisco (surprise) leads the pack having spent at least $62,000 of their taxpayer dollars on their doomed effort. But the real costs involve the attorneys. The city attorney for San Francisco has a salary of $150,000 (one would think for that kind of money they could find better legal minds than those that propagated this folly).

It would be safe to assume then that an assistant city attorney "earns" around $100,000. Another sound assumption would be that between a dozen litigating government agencies, they have employed two full-time attorneys for the two years these actions have thus far run. Alone, the shyster expenses racks-up another $400,000 (actually, closer to $800,000 once benefits are included). It would also be a sure bet that the costs of their staff's time is half again what the attorney's salaries are, so we'll add another $200,000. The cost to the taxpayer through the exercise of the courts and their staffs is immeasurable, but certainly is not cheap.

The total financial carnage when one considers salaries, benefits, paper, long distance calls, FedEx packages, and ink easily climbs above the one million dollar mark.

Now, call me cynical – which would be stating the perfectly obvious – but I still see a million dollars as significant pocket change. With benefits, the annual cost to employ the average California police officer is $110,000. Effectively, these city suits have kept at very least 10 police officers off the streets. You know – the streets – where the guns are being used in crimes by those intermediaries of which city attorneys appear to be unaware.

When Will It End?

Madness has a cure called "common sense". But like the farmer that has to yank the ear of a stubborn plow mule, you have to (metaphorically) yank the ear of your elected officials to apply common sense. If you live in or near San Francisco, Berkeley, Sacramento, Oakland, West Hollywood, Inglewood, Los Angeles, or Compton, or in the counties of Alameda or San Mateo, you need to ask – preferably in a public forum or letters to editors – why elected officials believe giving a million dollars to lawyers is smarter than hiring more police officers. If they cannot cough-up a rational answer, then at least ask for your money back. ESR

Guy Smith is president of FundTheCause, Inc. and author of the e-book Gun Facts.

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