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State senator poses gun legislation

By Erika Kelly Daily Planet correspondent
Wednesday August 15, 2001

State Sen. Don Perata unveiled legislation Tuesday that would hold gun manufacturers liable for what he called irresponsible design and marketing of their products. 

The legislation would repeal a section of California state law that shields gunmakers from product liability lawsuits, and would subject them to the same laws as manufacturers of other products, said Perata, speaking at the Eastmont Mall police substation in East Oakland. 

The announcement comes on the heels of a state Supreme Court ruling that the manufacturer of the guns used in the 101 California St. massacre could not be held legally responsible for the 1993 San Francisco shooting. 

The case was brought by the victims of Gian Luigi Ferri, who walked into the law offices of Pettit & Martin in July 1993, carrying two assault weapons and a pistol and opened fire. Ferri killed eight people and wounded six others before committing suicide. 

Perata’s bill, SB 682, would repeal Civil Code Section 1714, which the Supreme Court cited as the reason for its ruling. It would also introduce language that would hold gun makers responsible for the way  

they design, distribute and  

manufacture guns. 

“The way guns and ammunition are marketed and packaged has a lot to do with how they’re used and why they’re used lethally,” said Perata. 

Perata said gun manufacturer Navegar, which made the assault rifles Ferri used, marketed their product irresponsibly, by touting the gun’s fire power and fingerprint resistance.  

“Who wants to buy a gun that doesn’t show fingerprints?” asked Mike Barnes, president of the Brady Campaign to End Handgun Violence, who joined Perata at the press conference. “There’s only one kind of person that wants to buy that kind of gun.” 

Perata and Barnes were also joined by members of the Million Mom March, Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer, Oakland Police Chief Richard Word, and Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Chief Larry Todd, representing the California Police Chiefs Association. 

Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, interviewed by phone Tuesday, said she supported Perata’s proposed legislation and others aimed at reducing gun violence, including a ban on assault rifles and small handguns known as Saturday Night Specials. 

“The more guns we get off the street, the better. This is a major public health problem for teenagers and young people,” Dean said. 

Holding gunmakers responsible would encourage them to install trigger locks and increase research on so-called “smart guns,” which can only be fired by their owners, said Dean. 

Representatives for gun owners and manufacturers deny that the California statute provides special protection for gun manufacturers. 

“That gunmakers can’t be sued under California law is wildly inaccurate,” said Jim Vogt, a lawyer with the Chicago law firm of Wildman, Harrold who is representing gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger and Company, Inc., in the case brought against gun makers by 12 California counties. 

Gunmakers may, in fact, be sued under current legislation, said Vogt, but the case must show that injury was the result of a specific manufacturing defect. 

The current statute puts gunmakers on equal footing with other manufacturers in product liability cases, said Vogt. It was enacted in 1983 in response to a flurry of lawsuits against makers of Saturday Night Specials. 

Perata’s legislation would open gun manufacturers up to a different type of lawsuit, one that would argue the relative benefits and harm brought by guns, said Chuck Michel, a lawyer for the National Rifle Association and spokesman for the California Rifle and Pistol Association. Such lawsuits would be very costly to fight, Michel said. 

“They don’t have the pockets to litigate suits like that. They would be litigated to death,” said Michel. 

He also pointed out that gunmakers should not be held more accountable than automobile makers whose cars were driven by drunk drivers. 

City Councilmember Dona Spring disagreed. 

“Why should guns be held to this standard, and not knives or other things?” asked Spring. “Because they are so deadly at such a distance and are so pervasively used to do harm to people that the maiming, and killing and carnage needs to stop.”