With city leaders scrambling to combat high levels of gun violence, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas is dusting off an old legal tactic: suing the gun industry.
Such lawsuits were relatively common in the 1980s and 1990s, until Congress passed a law in 2005 that largely curtailed the tactic.
Speaking Tuesday at a news conference at City Hall, Lucas said the case represents the first municipal lawsuit filed against a gun manufacturer in more than a decade. Nonetheless, he said the city’s argument stands on “very strong legal footing."
The lawsuit, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court with help from the gun control group Everytown For Gun Safety, alleges that Nevada-based Jimenez Arms was involved in a conspiracy to traffic handguns in Kansas City.
Many of the lawsuit’s details and allegations have previously come to light through a criminal case against former Kansas City firefighter James Samuels, who allegedly trafficked dozens of handguns that have been used to commit crimes as serious as murder.
Samuels is awaiting trial on weapons charges outlined in a 14-count federal indictment. An alleged co-conspirator has already pleaded guilty to helping Samuels acquire guns via straw purchases.
The family of Alvino “Dwight” Crawford, who was killed in 2016 by a bullet from a Jimenez handgun allegedly trafficked by Samuels, has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Jimenez, Samuels and a gun dealer.
The Kansas City lawsuit targets Jimenez and Samuels, plus three local firearms dealers: CR Sales Firearms, Mission Ready Gunworks and Conceal & Carry, which is no longer in business.
A successful legal theory
Lucas said city officials contacted the legal team at Everytown For Gun Safety, an organization founded by billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to ask for help with the lawsuit.
Municipalities rarely sue the gun industry thanks in large part to a 2005 federal law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA).
The law passed with bipartisan support in response to a series of lawsuits filed in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the lawsuits argued that makers of small, cheap handguns sometimes called “Saturday Night Specials” should be held liable because simply manufacturing the gun was an abnormally dangerous activity. Others claimed negligent marketing or public nuisance.
The lawsuits were rarely successful, but proved costly to gun manufacturers and drove some out of business.
Under the PLCAA umbrella — many states have similar laws on the books — gun makers generally can only be sued if they sell a defective product.
But one legal theory called negligent entrustment has found success in recent years.
The idea is that a gun store can be held liable if it sells a weapon to a person it knows is likely to use the weapon illegally.
Kansas City’s lawsuit alleges the three area gun dealers did exactly that — and so did Jimenez Arms.
Between 2013 and his arrest in November 2018, Samuels trafficked “at least 77 guns into the Kansas City area,” said Alla Lefkowitz, an Everytown attorney who is assisting Kansas City on the lawsuit.
Many of those guns were purchased either directly from Jimenez or at wholesale prices though local dealers, she said.
“In two cases, Jimenez arms even shipped firearms directly to Mr. Samuels’ home without a background check,” Lefkowitz said.
When Jimenez stopped selling guns directly to Samuels, the local dealers acted as a “glorified dropbox” for guns sold to Samuels that later ended up in criminal hands, the lawsuit alleges.
Jimenez officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Herb Butzbach III, of Mission Ready Gunworks, told KCUR he has not been served with the lawsuit but denied wrongdoing.
“We were within the letter of the law 100%,” he said.
Charles Rice, of CR Sales, declined to comment.
In addition to negligent entrustment, the lawsuit alleges Jimenez and other defendants created a “public nuisance” by fostering an illegal market for firearms that caused the city and its residents “harm and substantial costs.”
The city seeks damages, legal fees and court oversight of Jimenez Firearms and the gun dealers.
Escalating violent crime
The lawsuit comes as city leaders struggle to combat violence that rose in 2019 to near-record levels.
Police increased the maximum reward for homicide tips to $25,000 and visited their counterparts in Tampa, Florida, and Milwaukee to learn more about how those departments combat violent crime.
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith announced plans to add homicide detectives in part by eliminating the department’s mounted patrol.
And police worked with federal officials to institute a new strategy to identify and pursue so-called “trigger pullers” — people police believe are most likely to commit acts of gun violence.
Last month, U.S. Attorney General William Barr also announced plans to flood the region with a “surge” of federal law enforcement agents and money to combat violent crime.
Even if Kansas City is able to completely remove Jimenez-manufactured firearms from city streets, the impact will likely be small.
Police records indicate that Jimenez-manufactured weapons accounted for just 216 of the 4,367 guns seized during investigations from 2010-2016 in which the manufacturer was listed — less than 5% of the total.
On Tuesday, Mayor Lucas said he’s willing to be as “creative” as it takes to “make sure that Kansas Citians don’t have to suffer from another generation, another epidemic of gun violence and gun crime.”
“We are going to take every option,” he said. “Too many people try to say when we talk about public safety, that it's kind of an either or: It's guns off the streets, or it is trauma or mental health funding. What we're saying is that you can do it all. You can walk and chew gum."
“We're a city that's going to be committed to mental health treatment, to addressing long-term trauma... while also making sure we're getting illegal guns off the street," Lucas said.