Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)

Indiana Republican­s kill Gary’s lawsuit to stop illegal gun sales


INDIANAPOL­IS — Almost 25 years after suing the firearms industry for failing to prevent illegal gun sales, the northweste­rn Indiana city of Gary won a critical victory last fall when a judge ordered gun manufactur­ers to hand over years of production and sales records.

But in March, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a new law retroactiv­ely banning cities from bringing such lawsuits, effectivel­y halting the case. Republican­s said the gun industry is not responsibl­e for illegal sales. Critics say the legislatio­n shows lawmakers don’t consider ending gun crime a priority and reflects their apathy for Gary’s majority Black residents.

“There’s gun violence everywhere you turn in America,” longtime Gary resident Rev. Dena Holland-Neal said. “And someone has to be accountabl­e.”

Gary is more racially diverse than the rest of Indiana and, sitting just east of Chicago, is one of its few Democratic stronghold­s. Most of its estimated 67,970 population is Black in contrast to 10% of people statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Gary was among dozens of U.S. cities to sue major gun-makers and sellers in reaction to the out-ofcontrol homicide rates and violent crime of the 1990s. But the other cities’ cases fell by the wayside, leaving Gary’s as the last suit standing when, in November, a Lake County judge ordered manufactur­ers to produce decades of business records.

“This case has persevered because it’s a valid claim,” said Rodney Pol, an attorney on the case and a Democratic state senator representi­ng Gary.

Indiana’s Republican-dominated Legislatur­e moved quickly to approve the new law this year, stipulatin­g that only the state’s attorney general can bring civil action against a firearm or ammunition manufactur­er, and made it retroactiv­e to Aug. 27, 1999, three days before Gary filed its lawsuit.

Rep. Chris Jeter, who wrote the legislatio­n, told the House Committee on Judiciary that the judge’s order would result in excessive costs for firearms manufactur­ers, which he said should not be held liable for illegal sales.

“I just think that there’s an effort to try to end this use of the court system as a weapon against gun manufactur­ers,” Jeter said.

He made no attempt to hide that Gary was his intended target.

“This bill is an effort to take one last shot to try to eliminate this last pending case,” he said.

The vocal minority Democratic caucus in the Indiana Legislatur­e decried the new law for favoring firearms companies. State Rep. Ragen Hatcher, a former prosecutor who represents Gary, called it a “slap in the face” for attorneys and judges.

“That is something for the court to decide,” Hatcher said.

Days after the governor signed the law, gun manufactur­ers asked the court to end Gary’s suit. The judge stayed the discovery Tuesday until the conflict with the new law is resolved. A status conference is scheduled for May 8.

Several of the gun manufactur­ers and retailers named in the lawsuit are on the board of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which lobbies for the firearms and ammunition industries in Indiana and statehouse­s nationwide.

Lobbying records first reported by ProPublica and The Indianapol­is Star show NSSF spent tens of thousands of dollars more on lobbying in Indiana last year than in the previous three years. Reports for this session haven’t yet been filed.

“This case is, and always was, frivolous, an abuse of the legal system,” Lawrence G. Keane, the senior vice president and general counsel for the group, said in a recent statement.

The Brady Center, a national organizati­on supporting gun-control policy, represents Gary in the lawsuit. Philip Bangle, senior litigation counsel, said Brady plans to challenge the new state law.

For Gary residents and officials, the looming end of the lawsuit is a reminder of how the firearms industry has changed and the continued devastatin­g impact of gun violence.

Technology and other changes over the past 20 years have made it easier to modify and re-sell illegal guns, Gary Deputy Police Chief Brian Evans said.

Violent crime offenders have trended younger during his three decades on the force, and often they are using guns acquired through illegal means, Evans said.

 ?? NAM Y. HUH/AP ?? Ragen Hatcher, a member of the Indiana House of Representa­tives from the 3rd District, stands in front of the Gary Sanitary District building in Gary, Ind., on March 26.
NAM Y. HUH/AP Ragen Hatcher, a member of the Indiana House of Representa­tives from the 3rd District, stands in front of the Gary Sanitary District building in Gary, Ind., on March 26.

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