Just a year ago, the gun industry laughed at Elisa Barnes and Denise Dunleavy as they lugged their case through the Federal District Court in Brooklyn. The lawsuit, Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, seemed like the longest of long shots -- trying to find gun-makers liable for flooding the market with guns that, the duo claimed, made their way to illegal-gun dealers. But in February, a jury bought into the case, netting one of their clients half a million dollars. Barnes and Dunleavy became the first lawyers to make the gun lobby blink.
Then, in April, came the Littleton massacre, and this month, the racist Indiana shooter. Gun control -- or, at least, gun regulation -- is hot again, and the team still has what Barnes calls "the only case that's tried and true by a jury." And at last week's NAACP confab in Manhattan, president Kweisi Mfume announced a new wide-reaching lawsuit against gun-makers. To be filed in Brooklyn. By the very same team.
Barnes and Dunleavy are trying the same basic argument all over again -- only this time, instead of money, they want new industry regulations. "The NAACP recognizes that this is pretty much how the guns get into their neighborhoods," says Barnes. The Hamilton strategy also lets the NAACP hammer gun-makers without trampling on the right to bear arms. Explains NAACP assistant general counsel Debbie Liu: "We do not oppose the Second Amendment -- we know the long struggle our members had to exercise that right. But we do hold the industry negligent for failing to do their part to stem the illegal spread of firearms."
One possible wrinkle in the suit -- convincing a judge that the NAACP has the legal right to sue a whole industry. But if Barnes and Dunleavy have their way, their case could land in the courtroom of Jack Weinstein, the class-action-friendly jurist who let Hamilton go to trial when most analysts predicted it would be thrown out. "He's probably the authority on this," says Dunleavy, not without a little pleasure.
These days, Barnes and Dunleavy sit in the center of the gun lobby's sights. Industry lawyers appealing the Hamilton verdict vow to disprove the market-saturation argument. "The worst thing about our trial was that the gun industry declared a victory," says Dunleavy. "It didn't stop the handguns from being out there." The NAACP case, then, gives the two lawyers a chance to fire back with more ammo.