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Mayor condemns Indiana bill aimed at ending city's gun maker lawsuit

Alex Dalton, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

Supporters and opponents of a Republican-backed Indiana bill aimed at stopping the city of Gary’s 25-year-long lawsuit against handgun makers clashed during a lengthy Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.

The committee heard more than two hours of discussion and testimony.

Gary Mayor Eddie Melton urged members of the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law to vote down the legislation, which he framed as a legislative overreach and an unfair usurpation of the city’s authority.

“This is that camel sticking the nose under the tent,” Melton, who served in the Indiana Senate until December, told the committee. “Local governments have the right to fight back against bad actors, and I repeat, bad actors who they believe are harming their community.”

House Bill 1235 would remove the ability of cities, states and other political subdivisions in Indiana to sue gun and ammunition manufacturers in nearly all cases, reserving sole authority to do so for the state attorney general. The legislation, which was passed by the Indiana House 68-27 vote in January, would apply retroactively to pending lawsuits, of which there is currently only one. Its author, Rep. Chris Jeter, R-Fishers, has been explicit about his singular intention to quash the Gary suit, first filed by the city in 1999.

Gary brought a nuisance suit against 11 handgun manufacturers, one wholesaler, and five retailers, claiming that the defendants engaged in illegal activity, including allowing straw purchases of firearms, that has fueled violent crime in the city.

Courtney Curtis, assistant executive director at the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, did not take a stance on the bill, but explained to the committee that gun violence has increased in Northwest Indiana in recent years. She noted that the rate of minors killed by firearms in the region is more than double the national rate.

Sen. Rodney Pol. D-Chesterton, who has worked on the lawsuit in his role as a city attorney for Gary, introduced two amendments during Tuesday’s committee meeting that would have weakened the bill. One would have maintained the ability of subdivisions to sue gun makers over unlawful activity, and the other would have removed the retroactive aspect of the legislation, allowing the city’s lawsuit to proceed unimpeded.

“The idea that we would go back in time to 25 years (ago), to make this retroactive back to that date, I think, slaps the judiciary in the face.” Pol told the committee. “I think it slaps all of our political subdivisions in the face.”

 

Courts have consistently allowed the lawsuit to proceed, even as new legislation has curtailed the civil liability of gun makers. In 2005, shortly after Congress granted industry businesses broad civil protections at the federal level with the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, the defendants unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the lawsuit. In 2015, then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a law making an existing civil immunity statute for the gun industry retroactive, prompting another motion to dismiss that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Both amendments were rejected by the committee, with four of the five Republican committee members voting against them. Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, joined Pol and Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, in voting yes on both items.

Brown was the only Republican on the committee to criticize the bill, and drew an analogy between the Gary suit and a lawsuit filed in November against automakers Hyundai and Kia by her home city. Attorneys for Fort Wayne claimed that the companies’ vehicles lack features designed to prevent them from being stolen, leading to rampant car theft and related crimes.

When Corrine Youngs, policy director and legislative council to Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, argued for reserving the power to sue gun makers for Rokita’s office because “it makes sense in these regulatory situations to have one decision maker for the state of Indiana,” Brown pushed back.

“I guess I’m having a hard time figuring out where we should not allow locals to take this decision and where we should,” Brown told Youngs.

“I think it’s a better position for the state to be representing the entirety of the whole state in the Hyundai suit,” Youngs replied.

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