Gary gun industry lawsuit proceeds as Statehouse Republicans move to kill it

Gun Rights

With an 8-2 vote on Wednesday, the Indiana House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill aimed at ending the city of Gary’s nearly quarter century-long battle with the gun industry — just a day after a Lake County judge laid out the timeline for the discovery process.

House Bill 1235, authored by Rep. Chris Jeter, R-Fishers, would block any government body in Indiana other than the state itself from suing a gun manufacturer or other industry business in nearly all cases and would apply retroactively to ongoing litigation. If passed, the legislation would spell the end of a lawsuit that Gary first brought against 11 handgun manufacturers, one wholesaler, five retailers, and additional “John Doe” defendants in 1999.

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The city claimed that negligent marketing and deceptive advertising by the businesses constituted a public nuisance, fueling the illegal trafficking of weapons and violent crime in the city, which had the earned the grim title of America’s “murder capital” five years earlier. Gary witnessed 70 murders in 1997 and 54 in 1998.

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Cable gun locks sit on a table for distribution during a Project Outreach and Prevention event at the Gary Police Station on Thursday, December 14, 2023. (Kyle Telechan for the Post-Tribune)

Lawyers from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence have represented Gary in the suit.

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The case has persisted for 24 years even as restrictions on civil suits against gun manufacturers have tightened at both state and federal levels. In 2005, the defendants unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that it violated the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a bill shielding gun makers and sellers liability for crimes committed with their products that Congress had passed earlier that year.

In 2015, then-Governor Mike Pence signed legislation making an existing civil immunity statute for the gun industry retroactive to 1999, prompting another attempt by the defendants to get the case thrown out. Indiana’s Court of Appeals ultimately denied the motion, and the case remains ongoing.

A guest browses firearms in the Heckler & Koch display at the National Rifle Association's Annual Meetings & Exhibits in Indianapolis on April 16, 2023. The Republican-dominated Indiana General Assembly is once again trying to block the city of Gary's nearly quarter century long legal battle against the gun manufacturers.

Gary also sued six local dealers, including Westforth Sports Inc. in Calumet Township, which closed last year. From 1997 through 2000, 764 recovered handguns were sold by dealers named as defendants.

In June, Lake Superior Judge John Sedia issued a ruling allowing the discovery process — where parties to a case produce and share relevant documents — to go ahead. The city has long sought records of gun sales by local retailers, which it says will illustrate a connection between gun suppliers, the illicit transfer of firearms, and gun violence.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the city of Gary and the defendants gathered in Sedia’s courtroom in Hammond to discuss the ongoing discovery process, with HB 1235 looming over the proceedings. Plaintiff lawyer Chris Wilson accused the defendants of “spending their time and money in Indianapolis attempting to get a legislative override” of Sedia’s earlier order.

State Rep. Chris Jeter, R-Fishers, reads a list of bills as the Indiana House opened its session in the House chamber in the Indiana Government Center in Indianapolis on Jan. 4, 2021. Jeter authored the latest bill to attempt to block the city of Gary's nearly quarter century long legal battle against the gun manufacturers.

James Vogts, a lawyer representing Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Smith and Wesson, pushed back.

“We’re defending the case under Indiana rules,” he told the judge. “That’s all we’re doing.”

Sedia told the attorneys that the House bill will not be a factor in his handling of the case.

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Pamela Newson, on left, and Bula Bowden, of Gary, walk for Pamela's son, Iyuan Yarbrought, during a walk to honor loved ones lost to gun violence on Friday, June 2, 2023. (Kyle Telechan for the Post-Tribune)

“We’ll deal with it when it comes,” he said.

Sedia ultimately gave the parties 60 days in which to meet and confer on a timeline for the discovery process followed by 10 more days to submit a complete or partial timeline proposal to the court.

At Wednesday’s hearing, supporters of the legislation framed it as a bid to protect gun owners’ privacy by halting the discovery process and to remove a lawsuit that they said has discouraged gun businesses from expanding in the Hoosier state.

Westforth Sports, Inc., is shown April 26, 2021, in Gary, Indiana. The gun store, which closed last fall, was one of the retailers named in the city of Gary's lawsuit against the gun manufacturers in 1999.
Michelle L. Quinn/for the Post-Tribune

Jeter argued that the power to regulate firearms ultimately belongs in Indianapolis.

“We can have debates about gun control,” he said. “I think those are legislative debates.”

Indiana’s state legislature, where Republicans hold supermajorities in both houses, has consistently taken action to defend gun rights, including by blocking cities and other political subdivisions from imposing their own gun control measures. A bill to remove that restriction, introduced this session by state Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, faces long odds of passage.

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Gary resident Latrice Dodson, whose thirteen-year-old son Orie Dodson was killed in a shooting last week, speaks during a memorial vigil and balloon release honoring Orie and other victims of gun violence on Monday, February 20, 2023. (Kyle Telechan for the Post-Tribune)

Corrine Youngs, policy director and legislative council to Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, lauded the bill for consolidating the power to sue the firearm industry in Rokita’s office.

“Public nuisance suits have turned into a weapon in the arsenal of municipalities, converting all manner of serious individual harms into public rights in order to achieve socially desirable ends,” she told the committee. “The attorney general represents the state of Indiana and serves as the single legal voice for the state. And it makes sense, in these regulatory situations, to have one decision maker for the state of Indiana.”

The bill’s detractors, for their part, framed the suit as a means of addressing an ongoing epidemic of gun violence.

“This has the potential to hinder the ability of local communities to hold these entities and individuals accountable for their irresponsible behavior,” Cathy Weinmann, a volunteer with the grassroots gun control group Moms Demand Action, told the committee.

HB 1235 was ultimately passed out of committee in a party-line vote, with the two present Democratic members voting against it. It now awaits a vote by the full House of Representatives.

Brady Center president Kris Brown called the bill a “Hail Mary” by businesses keen to avoid discovery with help from their State House GOP allies.

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“There are litigation strategy is to make this go away by any means possible,” she told the Post-Tribune. “They’re not prepared to litigate this case. They do not want us to have a shred of information.”

Jeter did not return a request for comment.

adalton@chicagotribune.com

Freelance reporter Carole Carlson contributed.

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