Gun makers are appealing an Indiana judge's first-of-its-kind ruling that a federal law shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits is unconstitutional.
The ruling by Lake Superior Court Judge Robert A. Pete allows a lawsuit filed by the city of Gary to continue against 16 gun manufacturers and six Northern Indiana gun dealers. The suit, filed in 1999, alleges the manufacturers and gun dealers sold handguns they knew would end up in the hands of criminals.
Gun manufacturers had sought to have the case dismissed under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. Passed by Congress in 2005, the law grants the industry broad protections from municipalities and victims seeking damages for gun-related violence.
Pete ruled that the law violates the due process and separation of powers clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
"(It) is clearly an act which was passed in response to pressure from the gun industry," he wrote in his decision last month.
A few cases filed elsewhere against the gun industry have been allowed to proceed under an exemption in the law, but Pete's ruling marked the first time the act was declared unconstitutional.
Gun manufacturers last week filed initial paperwork needed to appeal the decision.
Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade association, said Congress has the right to ban the lawsuits.
"We believe that the judge's decision is flawed as a matter of law and constitutional analysis," Keane said. "We think we're going to clearly win on appeal."
While drawing at least some attention around the country, the ruling here should have limited effect on cases elsewhere, said Ivan Bodensteiner, a constitutional law professor at Valparaiso University School of Law.
A ruling by a judge in Indiana does not bind a judge in another state, Bodensteiner said, and such decisions don't often get widely cited.
Still, the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which is helping represent the city of Gary, has hailed the decision as significant.
"It's gratifying to us that this bill, which was clearly a special-interest payoff to the gun industry and the gun lobby, was struck down by one of the courts that looked at it," said Brian Siebel, a senior attorney with the Brady Center.
The Gary lawsuit has already survived several hurdles.
After the city filed its lawsuit in 1999, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill the next year to ban lawsuits by other municipalities.
Lake Superior Court Judge James Richards dismissed the Gary case in 2001, saying the city cannot fault businesses beyond its jurisdiction for the crimes committed by others.
That decision was appealed and ultimately landed before the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled in 2003 that the lawsuit could go forward.The federal law was passed after that and applied retroactively