Friday, August 10, 2001 | return to: local


101 California plaintiffs to push for new state gun law

by ALEZA GOLDSMITH, Bulletin Staff

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Jewish gun control activists, disappointed by Monday's state Supreme Court decision favoring the gun industry, plan to take their fight to the state Capitol.

According to attorney Fred Blum, the California product liability law upheld by the court earlier this week -- protecting manufacturers from being sued for the criminal use of their product -- is both outdated and wrong.

"If you ask most people on the street if they knew the law said they could design a gun strictly for murder and get away with it, they would tell you you're crazy," said Blum, a former president for the now-defunct Northern Pacific region of the American Jewish Congress. "Hopefully, now that we have different legislators and a different governor this issue will get resolved."

Blum and his clients Carol Kingsley and Zachary Berman joined with several other attorneys and plaintiffs in the lawsuit trying to hold the Florida gun manufacturer Navegar, which designed the assault weapons used in the 101 California St. massacre, legally responsible for the 1993 shooting.

Plaintiffs were either victims of the shooting or the survivors of victims.

In that shooting Gian Luigi Ferri, 55, walked into the law offices of Petit & Martin in downtown San Francisco with two military-style assault weapons and a pistol, and open fire. He killed eight people, including lawyer and Jewish activist Jack Berman, 35, Kingsley's husband and Zachary's father. The gunman wounded six others before fatally shooting himself.

Blum, himself a good friend of the late Berman and godfather to his son, described the one firearm used in this massacre as a military-style assault weapon. The gun, he said, uses military-style ammunition, has no target accuracy and is made to spray bullets.

"The only thing this gun is good for is exactly what Gian Luigi Ferri used it for," said Blum, noting that the gun has since been banned by the state of California and the federal government -- although there is a different version of the model currently on the market.

On Monday, the justices voted 5-1 to toss out the lawsuit, upholding the product liability law (civil code, section 1714.4). The suit had been previously dismissed in 1997 by San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren but was reinstated in state appeals court two years later.

Tracy Salkowitz, former regional director of the AJCongress and a founder of the AJCongress' violence prevention and gun control arm -- the Jack Berman Advocacy Center -- said the court's decision showed a lack of courage.

"The tobacco industry has been made to be held accountable for the instrument of death that they have knowingly been selling, and gun manufacturers have not been held similarly accountable," said Salkowitz.

She helped form the Jack Berman Advocacy Center in honor of Berman, a past president of the AJCongress, following the July 1 massacre. Although the AJCongress no longer has a local office, the advocacy center remains an active fixture in the Bay Area.

"Were not talking about a hunting rifle here," said Salkowitz of the TEC-DC9 assault weapon used in the attack. "We're talking about a weapon, whose sole purpose is the mass destruction of human life."

Kingsley, who has also played an instrumental role in the advocacy center, said the state Supreme Court made "a gutless decision" by looking at this case as a product liability case rather than one of negligence.

"They didn't have the strength to take the high road," said Kingsley. "And because of that the court basically expanded and reinforced immunity for gun makers."

While Blum is also "less than thrilled" with the state court's decision, he believes it was made on the basis of narrow ground leaving open the possibility of future suits as well as a legislative ruling over the court.

He also said he believes that the national media coverage and wide recognition of the lawsuit have forced people to re-examine the issue of gun control.

"If anything, it is very clear now that the law needs to catch up with the proper consciousness," said Blum. "Sometimes, unfortunately, you have to lose a lawsuit in order to let people know that."

There are no plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Blum and Kingsley said they and the others involved in the lawsuit would eventually take the issue to Sacramento lawmakers.

"This won't stop us," said Kingsley. "Since we don't have our day in court we'll just have to get the statute repealed legislatively."

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