Annual Meeting

Preventing gun violence: Which legal strategies are actually working?


Taking on the issue of gun violence in the United States, soon-to-be ABA President James Silkenat told a Friday-morning audience at the ABA Annual Meeting that “we need fewer graves where common ground on this issue should be.”

Silkenat’s remarks opened the session titled “Lawyers, Guns & Money,” a catchy phrase lifted from Warren Zevon’s song of the same name. And though Zevon’s context differed, implying deep trouble required sending “lawyers, guns and money,” Silkenat said the line was too good not to use.

The program’s subtitle spelled out the session’s point: “Prohibitions, Restrictions, Guns in Schools, Civil Liability—Will These Strategies Prevent Gun Violence and Save Lives?” It was sponsored by the ABA Criminal Justice Section, and among the co-sponsors were the Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section; the Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division; the Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence; and the Family Law Section.

After Silkenat’s remarks, the panel went at the details, from dealing with those among the mentally ill who are prone to violence to litigation over gun sales and gun rights—including a lively defense of gun rights by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Jennifer Johnson, a lawyer in the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender said focus on the mentally ill when one of these shooting tragedies occurs is misplaced because such incidents are “quite an anomaly.” The mentally ill aren’t as a group more violent, and there have been thousands of gun deaths since the massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults last December in Sandy Hook, Conn., that did not involve mentally ill shooters.

Johnson also is a law professor and consultant on these issues. Over the past 15 years, she has watched mentally ill individuals repeatedly cycle through jails and hospitals only to end up back on the streets and eventually in the morgue. She has been involved in the development of evidence-based practices for improving mental health services to prevent violent crime.

Johnson said the increasing number of mental health courts around the country has been a positive development. But problems continue—such as some of those courts handling only misdemeanors.

“I argued with a Florida judge who said it’s not politically possible to take felons” into such courts, Johnson says. Past violence predicts future violence, and if these individuals are not helped “they will be on the street again,” she said.

Elizabeth Burke, managing attorney for Lawyers for a Safer America, part of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told the audience that lawyers can work with the Brady group pro bono to help with litigation in three areas: holding gun dealers accountable, challenging extremist legislation and working to defend challenges to reasonable gun laws.

The Brady litigation group settled a case against the gun manufacturer and the dealer whose weapons were used by the D.C. sniper in 2002, getting $2.5 million for the victims’ families. The dealer was put out of business.

The leadership council firms behind these efforts are Covington & Burling, Arnold & Porter, Hogan Lovells and White & Case.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr told the audience, “I do not believe the Founding Fathers anticipated assault weapons when they said that everybody should have a gun,” adding that “people know that less guns are a better idea.”

That brought spirited opposition from panelist Gene Hoffman, an Internet entrepreneur (eMusic and Vindicia) who co-founded and is chairman of the Calguns Foundation, which actively supports Second Amendment rights and also engages in litigation to maintain and increase those rights.

Hoffman offered loads of facts and statistics to counter arguments made by his co-panelists. Among them: California has some of the strictest gun laws and Texas goes the other way, but California has a higher gun homicide rate.

While agreeing that background checks for gun purchasers are a good thing, Hoffman argued that a registry of who owns which firearms is “not necessarily the government’s business.”

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