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Manufacturers' liability: a new weapon against assault guns?

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Philip Andrew was a 20-year-old North Shore college kid when Laurie Dann quite literally shot him into public prominence on May 20, 1988. His parents' kitchen is the one Dann invaded in her flight from the Winnetka school where she had just shot six children. After a 90-minute standoff with Andrew, she shot him and then killed herself.

It took Andrew a month to recover from his wounds, and he emerged as a determined gun-control advocate. He joined the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, helped draft gun-control legislation, and marched in demonstrations. Now he's turning his attention to the Chicago City Council, where a bill has been introduced that would make makers of assault weapons liable for any deaths or injuries their products cause.

"Gun makers have had a free ride while the products they make cause injuries, death, and destruction," says Andrew, now a law student at DePaul University. "This issue has nothing to do with the right to own a gun. It's about making gun makers accountable."

So far the proposal has stirred little debate because few people know about it. It was quietly introduced last month by 43rd Ward Alderman Edwin Eisendrath and then shuttled over to a City Council committee. There has been no discussion of it in the council, and the Daley administration has taken no position on the matter.

Eventually, though, the bill's backers expect that gun-rights lobbyists will forcefully vent their opposition, and they've got their reply to the progun contingent ready and waiting.

"This is a victims' rights bill--this is not a gun control issue," says Rob Buono, Eisendrath's legislative aide. "We're not trying to take away anybody's guns."

Andrew remembers everything that happened that May afternoon pretty clearly. "I was in the kitchen with my mom when Laurie Dann came into our house," he says. "I didn't know who she was or what she had done. She was holding two guns in her hand. I didn't think they were real."

Dann told the Andrews that she had been raped and that she had shot her assailant. Eventually Andrew's father came into the kitchen. All three of them tried to talk Dann into giving up her guns, and at one point she actually let go of one gun.

"I took that gun and took the clip out," says Andrew. "She eventually let my mother and father go so it was just me and her in the kitchen. She was about five feet away. I figured I could secure the gun by force. I remember that she glanced slightly out of the window and I thought 'This is it,' but she looked back and the gun went off."

Andrew was shot in the chest. He managed to crawl into a kitchen pantry. "I could see that I was bleeding," he says. "I put the clip back into the gun that I had taken from her and I snuck out of the pantry. By then she had gone upstairs and had probably taken her life. I didn't know that at the time. For all I knew she was hiding under the kitchen table." Andrew managed to walk out of the house before collapsing in the yard.

"What angered me the most is that all of this could have been prevented," says Andrew. "There was no reason in the world that a woman like Laurie Dann should have been allowed to have a gun. What's even more disturbing is that needless murders and shootings happen all the time in the city. We should not be complacent about it."

Ironically, some gun-rights advocates believe that Andrew's story validates their cause. From their point of view, most handgun owners are like Andrew was in his kitchen pantry: law-abiding citizens trying to defend themselves against criminals. Andrew rejects that argument.

"A gun is not an automatic equalizer," Andrew says. "Every situation with a gun comes down to who has the drop. To be equal, you have to have a gun right at hand when you need it. Say we had a gun in our house. Do we keep it in a Ziplock bag under the sink? That's absurd. If you know someone's coming you have time to prepare. But how would anyone know that Laurie Dann was going to walk into their kitchen?"

After he was released from the hospital, Andrew did some research on gun-related violence and became even more alarmed. More than 23,000 people are killed each year in this country by guns, according to police statistics. An estimated 200 million firearms are in private possession. Many of these are hunting rifles or guns used for sport. But police estimate that roughly 65 million are handguns, for which there are few sporting uses. Most serious is the proliferation of automatic and semiautomatic assault weapons.

"Some of these guns, you pull the trigger and they spray 30 bullets within seconds," says Buono. "We're not talking about an old-fashioned handgun, which discharges one bullet at a time."

A recent Wall Street Journal article about a 16-year-old gun dealer who operates freely in sections of New York City revealed just how easy it is to obtain assault weapons. "In just a year the dealer, who calls himself Jerry, says he has made $4,000 selling 50 small-caliber handguns--including seven to students at [a high school] where he is an 11th grader," the article, by Alix Freedman, reports. "'Here where I live, every young kid has a .22 or a .25,' says Jerry. 'It's like their first Pampers.'"

Andrew and others say the proliferation of assault guns is just as bad in Chicago, even though most handguns have been illegal here since the mid-80s. A recent tour of police headquarters gave Andrew a more realistic idea of the problem.

"The police took me to the storage room where they keep the guns they collect--it was unreal," says Andrew. "They say they're collecting about 60 guns a day. They showed me this gun that folds into your pocket. It was fully automatic.

"There was this nine-millimeter pistol with a 100-round capacity. That means you pull the trigger and it fires like a brick of firecrackers, shooting 100 bullets. A nine-millimeter bullet is very dangerous. When it hits the body it tends to go in any direction. You could get shot in the forearm and the bullet would come out of your head. You cannot tell me there is some practical or recreational use for this gun. It's a weapon of death."

Eisendrath's proposed ordinance targets the following makes, all of which sound like weapons out of the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger flick: "Avtomat Kalashnikov semiautomatic firearms; Uzi semiautomatic firearms; Ingram Mac 10 or 11 semiautomatic firearms; TEC 9 and TEC 22 semiautomatic firearms; Ruger Mini 14 semiautomatic firearms; AR-15 semiautomatic firearms; Baretta AR 70 semiautomatic firearms; FN-FAL and FN-FNC semiautomatic firearms; Steyr Aug semiautomatic firearms; shotguns with revolving cylinders known as the Street Sweeper and Striker 12; any other semiautomatic firearm with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding ten rounds; and any other shotgun with a fixed magazine, cylinder or drum capacity exceeding six rounds."

The legislation would not ban these weapons, or even regulate their sale or distribution. "I don't know if we could pass a law banning such weapons," says Andrew. "The outcry would be so great." Besides, a local or even statewide ban wouldn't do much good so long as these guns could be freely made in other states.

Instead, the goal of Andrew's bill is to establish legal liability, which would affect gun makers everywhere. Currently there is no precedent for suing a gun maker for liability. This bill is based on a law passed last year in Washington, D.C., which is in the process of being challenged in the courts.

"These weapons are not like marijuana or other drugs--we know who's making them," says Andrew. "These are high-tech guns. They require a high grade of metal. These are machine manufacturing parts. This is a huge business. You can't make them in a basement, and even if you could, you couldn't keep up with the demand. All we're saying is this: if you're going to make millions making these weapons, you should be accountable for the damage they cause."

Ultimately, however, the city ordinance might drive some gun makers out of business by hitting them in the pocketbook. "In the long run a liability law may be more effective than a ban," says Andrew. "They'll have to spend more money on court costs and damages. I suspect they will fight this ordinance. They'll probably take it to court. This has national implications. A manufacturer in California will have to worry about what his gun does to someone in Chicago. If they have to pay damages, it will eat into their profits. It may take the profit out of making these guns. Ultimately, that's how this battle will be won. Sad to say, it won't be settled by people like me talking about how we were shot."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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