Shooting Back

As gun makers stockpile money for a PR and marketing battle to convince still more citizens to take up arms, besieged cities such as St. Louis aren't taking it lying down. They're returning fire with lawsuits.

"Sixth District Officers received a call for a man down in the alley. When they arrived, they observed the victim lying behind the left rear of his vehicle, bleeding from his nose and mouth area. He was unconscious and had suffered a gunshot wound to the left side of the stomach, car key laying near him. The driver's door was open and there was blood splatterings on a magazine, which was in the center of the front seat."

The staccato lines of a police report, this one attached to the name of Tyrone Polk, who died on the night of May 28, 1998, in an alley in the 8600 block of Partridge Avenue, a neighborhood of well-kept brick bungalows north of Calvary Cemetery. One neighbor reported hearing a shot fired behind her home sometime after 9:30 p.m; another neighbor discovered the body about an hour later. Polk, a 41-year-old black man, lived nearby in the 1500 block of McLaran Avenue.

The homicide remains unsolved. No suspect has been charged. The weapon, which the St. Louis police believe to be a handgun, has not been recovered. The investigation remains open. There is nothing extraordinary about the case -- other than perhaps how routine this kind of gunplay has become. Last year, 75 of the 80 firearms fatalities in the city of St. Louis were attributed to handguns, according to police records. Guns and the violence they cause are ubiquitous in urban settings such as the one in which Polk died. During the first 11 months of 1998, police registered 200 gun-related assaults in the same area. Polk's death is just one of the more than 30,000 caused by firearms in the United States each year.

On the night Polk died of a gunshot wound in a North St. Louis alley, gun-industry executives were meeting in a strategy session 260 miles southwest of the city at Big Cedar Lodge, a posh resort on Table Rock Lake. The conference, sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), focused on marketing: Marketing guns to women. Marketing guns to youth. Marketing guns to minorities.

At the same meeting, the gun-industry executives decided to pool millions of dollars of their profits and use the money for public-relations purposes. This joint fund has more recently been expanded to help coordinate legal expenses associated with a growing number of lawsuits filed against gun manufacturers.

If Proposition B passes in the April 6 election, it will permit citizens to lawfully carry concealed weapons, but it will do nothing to stop the illicit trade in firearms that now exists. The vituperative campaign has so far overshadowed Mayor Clarence Harmon's recent announcement that St. Louis intends to follow the lead of five other cities in suing the gun industry for costs associated with firearms violence. If St. Louis models its lawsuit after those already filed, gun makers, distributors and dealers have serious cause for concern.

"The gun manufacturers have left us no choice but to pursue our legal option," says Harmon. "After numerous discussions they have proven unwilling to cooperate with mayors on any action that would make guns safer or make it harder for guns to fall into the wrong hands. In addition, gun violence costs the city an enormous amount in taxpayer dollars, not to mention the psychological toll it takes on our citizens and our children."

Now comes a study that may bolster the city's case against gun manufacturers. Conducted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and quietly released last month, the study shows just how these lethal weapons are allowed to "fall into the wrong hands," as the mayor puts it. The ATF's statistical analysis -- of guns confiscated from criminals in St. Louis -- strongly suggests that the merchants of death are most often federally licensed firearms dealers from mainly white suburbs. Moreover, the relatively brief time between the purchase of these guns from the dealers and their use in crimes in the black neighborhoods of the inner city suggests that some gun dealers are selling guns directly to criminals -- or to "straw men" who turn around and sell them to criminals.

Sold in St. Louis
Although the police have not recovered the handgun used to kill Tyrone Polk, statistics compiled by the ATF in 1997-98 give a good indication of the types of weapons most often used in such crimes, as well as where they originate. The study traced crime guns recovered by metropolitan police departments in 27 cities.

In St. Louis, the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver remains the weapon most frequently used by criminals, according to the ATF findings. Several cheap semiautomatic pistols are also favored, particularly among juveniles and young adults. Four of the local favorites are the Bryco, Lorcin, Raven and Davis. The last brand, which is still in production, retails for as little as $88.

The ATF tracked 1,194 guns confiscated in St. Louis back to the licensed gun dealers who sold them. A little more than 45 percent of the weapons traced back to gun dealers were purchased in Missouri. Another 10.1 percent were tracked to Illinois. Eight percent of the total came from Florida, a state that already permits the carrying of concealed weapons. The Sunshine State scored even higher among St. Louis criminals 18-24 years of age, accounting for 10.3 percent of the traceable guns seized in the city.

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