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Kansas City To Sue Gun Maker Over Rising Violent Crime Cases

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Kansas City, Mo., has been experiencing near-record levels of violent crime. And officials there are pinning some of the blame on easy access to firearms. So they're dusting off an old legal tactic - suing the gun industry. Chris Haxel from member station KCUR has more.

CHRIS HAXEL, BYLINE: Police say guns were used in more than 90% of the city's 148 homicides last year. Another 500 people were injured in nonfatal shootings. Mayor Quinton Lucas says Missouri's lax gun laws have made it tough for local leaders to pass new gun control legislation. So Lucas says he's getting creative.

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QUINTON LUCAS: We will be the first city to file a lawsuit against the gun industry in more than 10 years.

HAXEL: The city is suing gun manufacturer Jimenez Arms. Lucas hopes to hold the company responsible for some of the violence. Jimenez did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit stems from a criminal case against James Samuels, a former Kansas City firefighter who is not a licensed gun dealer. Samuels, who was arrested in 2018, allegedly trafficked more than 75 handguns into the region and bought dozens of them directly from Jimenez. At least one of those guns was used in a murder. Many are still on the street.

ALLA LEFKOWITZ: This case is about holding everyone who participated in this trafficking ring accountable.

HAXEL: Alla Lefkowitz is an attorney with Everytown Law, a gun control advocacy group that is helping Kansas City with the lawsuit.

LEFKOWITZ: A gun trafficker cannot accomplish his work alone. He needs suppliers, and he needs straw buyers. He needs companies that are willing to look the other way, and he needs individuals who are willing to lie for him.

HAXEL: Lawsuits against gun shops are pretty common, especially after mass shootings. This lawsuit goes a step further because it claims Samuels bought some of his guns directly from the maker - Jimenez Arms.

Cities used to file these lawsuits with some frequency. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, cities including Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia sued the gun industry. The litigation was rarely successful but proved costly to gun-makers and drove some of them out of business. Gun companies complained to lawmakers. And in 2005, Congress passed a law called PLCAA, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. It shields gun-makers from many of those municipal lawsuits.

JACOB CHARLES: When PLCAA came about, it was seen as, like - this is going to end, you know, all these types of litigation.

HAXEL: That's Jacob Charles, who heads the Duke Center for Firearms Law. He says PLCAA held off lawsuits against the gun industry for a while. But attorneys have started to chip away at its protections. The Connecticut Supreme Court recently agreed to advance a lawsuit filed after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Indiana Supreme Court also issued a ruling that Charles says is favorable for such lawsuits.

CHARLES: As there are lawsuits that are successful, you are going to see more lawsuits that follow that same theory.

HAXEL: If Kansas City's lawsuit proves successful - or even if it doesn't - Charles says more cities might take another look at suing the gun industry.

For NPR News, I'm Chris Haxel in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.