The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on.
–Robert F. Kennedy, April 4, 1968
Senator Robert F. Kennedy announcing the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What should the surviving victims of gun violence do to seek redress?
And how can the relatives and friends of those who didn’t survive seek justice for those they loved?
First, don’t count on politicians to support a ban on assault weapons.
Politicians–with rare exceptions–have only two goals:
- Get elected to office, and
- Stay in office.
And too many of them fear the economic and voting clout of the NRA to risk its wrath.
Consider Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.
Both rushed to offer condolences to the surviving victims of the Aurora massacre. And both have steadfastly refused to even discuss gun control–let alone support a ban on the type of assault weapons used by James Holmes.
On July 22, 2012–only two days after the Century 16 Theater slaughter in Aurora, Colorado–U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said: “The fact of the matter is there are 30-round magazines that are just common all over the place.
“You simply can’t keep these weapons out of the hands of sick, demented individuals who want to do harm. And when you try and do it, you restrict our freedom.”
That presumably includes the freedom of would-be mass murderers to carry out their fantasies.
Second, those who survived the massacre–and the relatives and friends of those who didn’t–should file wrongful death, class-action lawsuits against the NRA.
There is sound, legal precedent for this.
- For decades, the American tobacco industry peddled death and disability to millions and reaped billions of dollars in profits.
- The industry vigorously claimed there was no evidence that smoking caused cancer, heart disease, emphysema or any other ailment.
- Tobacco companies spent billions on slick advertising campaigns to win new smokers and attack medical warnings about the dangers of smoking.
- Tobacco companies spent millions to elect compliant politicians and block anti-smoking legislation.
- From 1954 to 1994, over 800 private lawsuits were filed against tobacco companies in state courts. But only two plaintiffs prevailed, and both of those decisions were reversed on appeal.
- In 1994, amidst great pessimism, Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore filed a lawsuit against the tobacco industry. But other states soon followed, ultimately growing to 46.
- Their goal: To seek monetary, equitable and injunctive relief under various consumer-protection and anti-trust laws.
- The theory underlying these lawsuits was: Cigarettes produced by the tobacco industry created health problems among the population, which badly strained the states’ public healthcare systems.
- In 1998, the states settled their Medicaid lawsuits against the tobacco industry for recovery of their tobacco-related, health-care costs. In return, they exempted the companies from private lawsuits for tobacco-related injuries.
- The companies agreed to curtail or cease certain marketing practices. They also agreed to pay, forever, annual payments to the states to compensate some of the medical costs for patients with smoking-related illnesses.
The parallels with the NRA are obvious:
- For decades, the NRA has peddled deadly weapons to millions, reaped billions of dollars in profits and refused to admit the carnage those weapons have produced: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” With guns.
- The NRA has bitterly fought background checks on gun-buyers, in effect granting even criminals and the mentally ill the right to own arsenals of death-dealing weaponry.
- The NRA has spent millions on slick advertising campaigns to win new members and frighten them into buying guns.
- The NRA has spent millions on political contributions to block gun-control legislation.
- The NRA has spent millions attacking political candidates and elected officials who warned about the dangers of unrestricted access to assault and/or concealed weapons.
- The NRA has spent millions pushing “Stand Your Ground” laws in more than half the states, which potentially give every citizen a “license to kill.”
- The NRA receives millions of dollars from online sales of ammunition, high-capacity ammunition magazines, and other accessories through its point-of-sale Round-Up Program–thus directly profiting by selling a product that kills about 30,288 people a year.
- Firearms made indiscriminately available through NRA lobbying have filled hospitals–such as those in Aurora–with casualties, and have thus badly strained the states’ public healthcare systems.
It will take a series of highly expensive and well-publicized lawsuits to significantly weaken the NRA, financially and politically.
The first ones will have to be brought by the surviving victims of gun violence–and by the friends and families of those who did not survive it. Only they will have the courage and motivation to take such a risk.
As with the cases first brought against tobacco companies, there will be losses. And the NRA will rejoice with each one.
But, in time, state Attorneys General will see the clear parallels between lawsuits filed against those who peddle death by cigarette and those who peddle death by armor-piercing bullet.
And then the NRA–like the tobacco industry–will face an adversary wealthy enough to stand up for the rights of the gun industry’s own victims.