Remembering When Bridgeport Sued Gun Makers, Nearly Two Decades Ago

Jun 23, 2016

Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim in his office in Bridgeport, Conn., on Wednesday.
Credit Ebong Udoma / WSHU

This week’s 25-hour sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives highlights the ongoing problem of getting gun control legislation through Congress. 

Twenty years ago, following a dramatic rise in urban homicides caused by the crack cocaine epidemic, Congress failed to take action on an assault weapons ban.

In response, 29 cities and counties across the country, including Bridgeport, Connecticut, decided to seek a remedy from the courts. 

The cities filed lawsuits against gun manufacturers claiming damages for costs associated with gun violence including police overtime, medical costs and revenue lost from depressed property values.

The lawsuits were dismissed.  In Bridgeport’s case, a state superior court ruled in December 1999 that the city did not have legal standing because it had not suffered any direct injury from guns.

WSHU’s Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma spoke with Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim. Ganim was mayor at the time and is now back as mayor.

Ganim tells Udoma that gun violence seemed to be out of control and that’s why Bridgeport tried to hold the manufacturers accountable.

Below is a transcript of their conversation:

Numbers of homicides, compared to former years or later years, saw a dramatic spike. I can’t remember the exact number but we're down, whether they were 10, 20 or 30 compared to now, thank God, it’s not a perfect number, but we are almost halfway through the year with one homicide.   

There was an assault weapons ban around that time that Connecticut considered. Could you tell us about that and the fact that you were able to get it through the legislature?

Interesting in Connecticut we are the home of many gun manufacturers as you know. Colt, identified with Hartford, Connecticut, Sturm Ruger right here in Fairfield, Connecticut, not too far away. I stood up, our police chief, and police chiefs across Connecticut, joined our attorney general at the time and legislators and were able to, almost not, but ultimately did succeed in getting an assault weapons ban passed in the state of Connecticut.

But the city still felt you needed to do something more. So you came up with this lawsuit. And you sued the gun manufacturers, that they were causing damages to the city. In what way?

Before we get to the damages, we weren’t the first city, but we were one of the first cities. We followed Chicago, Miami-Dade, New Orleans, each suing in name the gun manufacturer not for product liability, as has been pointed out, but for safer guns. The problem with just having Connecticut pass an assault weapons ban was the influx of these types of weapons, illegal weapons, getting around those laws coming in out of states like Virginia. They would traffic them up. And then there was the gun show loophole. So state borders, and even a law in one state, was just not enough.

Ultimately that lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that you didn’t have standing.

Lawsuits and the way you frame them are funny things. Because had you had an individual plaintiff, as opposed to a city perhaps, who had actually been a victim and could point to a clear cut example, maybe that would have been different.

Is that what is influencing the thinking now, with the Newtown families, because they are who are suing, as victims?

I think that’s an important element. Again there’s a little bit of lawyer left in me and it tells me that when you have direct connection between the claim and the injury or the injured party it’s much easier. You know we had a two or three step separation. Here we are as a municipality saying, hey what a minute this cost us a lot of money, this cost us police protection, this cost us things in our neighborhoods, it’s a harder connection to get and frankly less human and emotional for a judge or a court to try and get a hold on.

Seeing what’s happening after what happened in Orlando, on the federal level, what are your thoughts?

What’s going on as we speak in the halls of Congress, where individuals, especially I want to applaud the Connecticut delegation and Senator Blumenthal, who was the attorney general of Connecticut when we took on those early battles and is now a senator, and our entire Connecticut delegation to take on this issue, on such a dramatic fashion, whether it’s through a sit-in, or a filibuster, or speaking out and saying enough is enough. When are we going to stand up to, nothing against strong lobbyists, nobody is against the Second Amendment, when are we going to stand up though to protect the rights for children, for just common citizens, not to have this added level of challenge to public safety with the assault weapons being anywhere and everywhere without the protections of our laws.

Are you optimistic that something would be done this time around that would make a difference?

This is the most dramatic physical and verbal demonstration of courage and support that I’ve seen by Congress on this issue since I’ve been attentive or active. And I know both sides of the argument. But it seems to me that we are seeing finally more of an awareness and hopefully the development of a consensus around we need to do something. We may not agree exactly what the results should be. But I hope Congress does begin a process to do something to address this challenge. It’s a huge public safety challenge in this country.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, thank you so much.

Thank you.    

Correction: Mayor Ganim said there has been one homicide in Bridgeport since the start of the year.  There have been two.