Outgunned: Up Against the NRA-- The First Complete Insider Account of the Battle Over Gun Control

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9780743215619: Outgunned: Up Against the NRA-- The First Complete Insider Account of the Battle Over Gun Control

Ours is a nation in the grip of a strange kind of mania. Why after President Reagan was shot was there virtually no handgun legislation? Why after the Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colorado, was nothing done to regulate the tools that children most frequently use to kill one another? Why was there no legislative response after a six-year-old in Flint, Michigan, shot a classmate with a .32 caliber "pocket rocket"? Tragedy follows tragedy, with twelve children shot dead every day in America, but guns remain less regulated than automobiles. Why? As authors Peter Harry Brown and Daniel G. Abel in this powerful book demonstrate, it is because of the terrible power of the gun coalition. Outgunned begins with the story of Wendell Gauthier, the "master of disaster" attorney, who brought down the tobacco industry to the tune of billions and then turned his attention to guns. He struck fear into the hearts of the gun manufacturers as he set out to make gunmakers bear some liability for the killings caused by the often poorly made, inaccurate handguns they marketed to criminals. Coauthor Daniel G. Abel worked for Gauthier, along with other attorneys, as the gun-control campaign gathered momentum. This legal initiative seemed to be about to make history and change the face of violence in America, but sadly, Wendell Gauthier died of cancer before meaningful gun control could be established. More than thirty class-action suits against gun manufacturers now languish in courtroom paralysis while as many Saturday night specials as ever are being made. What happened? Brown and Abel demonstrate how the pro-gun forces once again curbed the will of a nation. This book shows the enomous power of the NRA -- how it killed pending legislation in Congress, hijacked the Campaign Act to fund the George W. Bush presidential election victory, and eviscerated the American Shooting Sports Council. That association and the gun manufacturers actually wanted to compromise and agree to new handgun laws, implicitly accepting some liability, but the NRA leadership, with Charlton Heston as their president, crushed them. In Outgunned, Brown and Abel uncover how NRA lobbyists were instrumental in stopping Smith & Wesson in its tracks. They show how the tendrils of the NRA reach into the Christian Alliance and Republican Party, and how men like John McCain have fought back and been undermined. Outgunned reveals how the NRA began dealing with President George W. Bush when he was still governor of Texas -- prodding him into signing a shocking prohibition against the kind of suits Gauthier brought against the gun manufacturers. Outgunned is the story of a legal crusade with up-close accounts of the people who fought every step of the way. For those who believe in the importance of stopping unnecessary bloodshed, this book is essential, powerful, and urgent.

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About the Author:

Peter Harry Brown is a veteran journalist for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times; he has won the California Associated Press Award for best investigative journalism, the New Mexico and Colorado Associated Press Award for feature writing, the Copley Newspapers Ring of Truth Award, the Gannett Newspapers annual award for feature writing, and the Florida Newspaper Publishers' Award for best spot news reporting. He lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Mission Impossible: Assembling the Team

New Orleans, Louisiana, October 30, 1998. Just over a week after the plan for the lawsuit had been slapped down on Mayor Morial's desk, Wendell Gauthier couldn't sleep. A windstorm had whipped up about midnight and rattled the trees and swept around the corners of his glass and birch-wood mansion. He normally fell into bed exhausted and didn't awaken until the sun was sparkling on the beveled-glass windows.

But in the hazy predawn hours, his phone jangled repeatedly, and a rasp of voices spewed hate-filled tirades into his answering machine. The callers were men of the gun, members of the Aryan Brotherhood, and, in a few cases, fellow attorneys convinced that Wendell Gauthier intended to take away their guns. Despite Gauthier's staff's best efforts, news had leaked out about the upcoming antigun litigation.

John Coale of Washington, D.C., one of Gauthier's lieutenants in the gun battle, decided to alert the press "for that extra little jolt." So he called friends at the Bloomberg journalistic group, a communications conglomerate with ties to the Internet, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press. What had been a small leak became a tidal wave as news of the lawsuit jumped from the pages of the Boston Globe (which was the first paper to print the story) to the AP and, finally, onto the United Press International radio wire. The late-night talk shows wanted to know if Gauthier would do to guns what he had done to tobacco.

Throughout his two decades as a litigator, Gauthier had weathered press ridicule and opposing counsel derision. He'd been called "master of disaster," "king of torts," and "Boom-Boom" (the latter honoring his success with explosives litigation). But all in all, he managed to maintain a "white knight" image: a good-hearted champion (albeit a rich one) eager to deliver solace and cash to his clients. The gun suit would make him the target of the conservative press, the Republican Party, the National Rifle Association, and the Christian Conservative Alliance.

At New Orleans City Hall, Mayor Morial was having late-night problems of his own. When the news leak had reached Philadelphia, it provoked an angry phone call from the city's mayor, Edward Rendell, who already was mired waist-deep in a campaign of his own against the gun manufacturers. "This is my deal!" he screamed at Morial. "You know I started this in the Conference of Mayors, so back off and let me proceed. I'm damned close to reaching a settlement with the gun companies."

Rendell demanded that Morial postpone his action so that he could schedule one last meeting with the firearms attorneys. The Philadelphia mayor explained that he was close to hammering out a settlement.

But Morial quietly explained that he couldn't. Court documents were already filed. Press releases had been distributed. Enraged, Rendell slammed down the phone, but not before spewing a string of expletives.

Rendell had reason to be angry, but not for the one he gave. In early 1998, he had decided not to proceed with the complaint that had been drafted for the city by Temple University law professor David Kairys. He was instead dealing directly with NRA leaders. Rendell was more than aware of the 165,000 voting NRA members in Pennsylvania, but he wasn't in the organization's pocket. He was torn.

Frustrated when settlement talks lapsed with gun manufacturers' negotiators, Rendell threatened to proceed with the lawsuit.

"He went further than that," recalls Paul Jannuzzo, vice president and general counsel of Glock, Inc. "Rendell called us together and told us we either did what he said or one hundred lawsuits would be filed against us from coast to coast."

The Philadelphia mayor briefly considered holding a competing press conference when New Orleans delivered its news, but decided against it. Public sentiment was volatile; voters could easily turn against his cause -- and him. There was just too much on the table to lose.

Back in New Orleans, Gauthier prepared for his media event. By morning, bulletins concerning the lawsuit had been picked up by CNN, NBC, ABC, and Fox News, who were ready to broadcast live reports from New Orleans City Hall's Old Spanish Steps. Despite his best efforts, the conference did not go smoothly.

At 12:30 PM, while he and Abel waited for Morial to appear, a group calling itself "the South Mississippi Aryan Brotherhood" called in a bomb threat to the mayor's office, warning that an incendiary device had been planted somewhere in City Hall. It would be triggered at 1:30 PM, the news conference's start time. Police immediately evacuated the building, barricading all nearby streets, and escorting bomb-sniffing dogs through City Hall's long corridors.

Abel leaped over a barricade and bolted up the stairs in search of Mayor Morial. After some searching, he found him behind the building, calmly rereading the fifty-page lawsuit.

When the police dogs indicated that City Hall was bomb-free, Morial and a keyed-up Gauthier resumed their positions on the podium and announced their suit against gun companies, gun retailers, and pawnshops. Reporters from ten states and stringers for Australia, Canada, and Great Britain recorded their words.

"Waiting periods for gun purchasers; a limit of one gun purchase per thirty-day period; and a plan for the design, manufacture, and sale of smart or personal guns."

Their demands seemed modest to many.

When the conference broke up, Gauthier immediately headed to his office, leaving Morial to be mobbed by journalists. However, one reporter from CNN cornered the attorney: "Why does the City of New Orleans need a big-time lawyer like you to litigate for them?"

"Because the mayor asked me to," he replied. "Now if you are going out to get a big entertainer in here, you'd get the best -- Madonna or Barbra Streisand. With me, Marc knows he is getting the best."

The reporter pressed on: "Mr. Gauthier, you are not an elected official; you have no obligation to voters; what gives you the right to sue?"

Gauthier bristled: "We are taking the gun dealers to court because the political process failed us. The mayor tried to crack down on the dealers when he was a state senator, and the gun lobby crushed his efforts each time. He couldn't even get a bill out of committee. If lawyers hadn't launched Brown v. Board of Education, you would never have had school integration because it was so unpopular with lawmakers.

"How can our legislature make aspirin bottles childproof and ignore the possibility that guns can be made safe as well? I say, get your butt in court, Mr. Gun Maker, and let's see what you have. And when we reveal the facts, Mr. Gun Maker, nobody's going to be interested in whether I am making a fee or not. They are going to be interested in whether you did wrong or if you sold your guns to criminals."

Abel stayed out late that night with visiting press corps members, celebrating the suit's announcement. But when he returned home, he found nasty communications on his phone service. Unlike Gauthier, he listened raptly to the messages, informally trying to gauge public opinion. Then he began fielding calls -- mostly a torrent of name-calling, curses, and threats until just after midnight, when a caller put a gun near his phone receiver and fired two shots.

Using the strategy that earned him success against the nation's tobacco makers, Gauthier gathered together thirty-seven attorneys from around the country, and encouraged them to pool their resources and fund a "war room" to oversee the litigation. The thirty-seven attorneys each contributed $50,000 in cash, man-hours, and research. The money funded a permanent staff of paralegals. Gauthier also prepped the thirty-seven attorneys about taking the gun companies to court.

The lawsuit broke new ground by attacking the firearms industry for "failing to install safety devices that would prevent children -- and other unauthorized users -- from firing the gun." As written by Abel and Dennis Henigan of Handgun Control, Incorporated, the suit also faulted gunmakers for developing prototypes of so-called smart guns and then refusing to manufacture them. (In fact, only Colt's Manufacturing Company had developed a model that wouldn't fire without a signal from the owner's radio transmitter. That gun has not been proven reliable).

New Orleans sought to recoup millions of dollars spent on police, medical, and other city services in connection with suicides, murders, and other unintentional shootings. Gauthier and his associates' cut would be 20 percent of any settlement and 30 percent of any judgment should the case go to trial.

Wendell Gauthier suddenly found himself gaining more notoriety for masterminding this antigun litigation than at any time prior in his career. He also was proving very intriguing to journalists, some of whom depicted him as a hero, others as a greedy opportunist intent on rooting out cash awards from the gun companies.

The Weekly Standard's Matt Labash summed up the objections. "If it burns, leaks, seeps or (praise god) explodes, chances are Gauthier is heading up the plaintiff's committee, siphoning 25 to 35 per cent contingency fees from multi-million dollar jackpots." In an interview with the author, Labash continued: "I do not see a cause of action here. Guns are meant to fire bullets. Guns are meant to kill or maim. Guns are violent or they would not do their job."

Gauthier agreed with that assessment -- but only to a point. He believed that handguns had become too deadly -- with their armor-piercing bullets and pinpoint laser sights. "In the hands of children and criminals, they're an invitation to disaster."

Because the attorney had cultivated an antipathy toward firearms that was out of step with his profession, he was immune to the gun mystique that seems to permeate American life.

"I cannot imagine anyone other than Wendell to head up this effort," Henigan said. "In fact, he was the one who convinced me that these lawsuits were viable when he recruited my help to write the pleading."

Henigan, on loan from Handgun Control, Inc., saw Gauthier as a "doer" rather than "just a thinker."

Gauthier has been a man of action ever since he graduated from Southern University in New Orleans and headed for Loyola Universty's School of Law. Strapped for cash, he founded a driving school to pay for law school and the early, lean days of starting a practice.

When the big cases started roaring in -- such as the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas and the 1982 Pan Am crash in Kenner, Louisiana -- Gauthier became known for his colorful style. His first big case came when twelve houses blew up in Metairie, Louisiana, because of faulty gaskets put on gas lines in the county. He garnered a $1 million settlement for his twelve clients but claims now that he did not see a cent in fees because his expenses had been so high.

Though educated at Southern University and able to speak fluent French and quote Voltaire, Gauthier could play country bumpkin to win the sympathies of unsophisticated juries and would employ humor to defuse tense situations -- and hopefully sway opinions. Once, during a 1988 case involving harmful chemicals, he discovered at noon Friday that crucial medical documents would not arrive until Monday. This meant he would be forced to start his closing arguments before the documents reached him. Just before lunch, Gauthier asked for a continuance. "No, this trial is late enough as it is," answered the judge. "And, Mr. Gauthier, you are skating on thin ice considering the number of delays you have facilitated in this case."

Gauthier tore out of the courthouse at noon and began canvassing toy stores for a state-of-the-art robot that could walk, beep, and follow his commands from remote controls. Gauthier found the perfect one and stashed the remote controls in his coat pocket. Back in court, Wendell put the robot beneath the plaintiff's table and pointed it toward the bench. It beeped and clinked its way to the judge's bench, where it butted its head onto a small set of stairs and tipped over. In its hands was a note for the judge that said, "Won't you please, please give my master a continuance? His very future as a lawyer depends upon this." Raucous laughter filled the courtroom until the judge picked up the toy and aimed it back at Gauthier: "Tell your master he has the continuance."

Sometimes his antics trailed into the badlands of legal ethics. In 1994, Gauthier even faked a heart attack -- again to force a continuance. The case involved a multimillion-dollar claim, and Gauthier didn't want to give his closing argument on a Friday. Gauthier explained: "The jury would have forgotten everything I said when they returned on Monday. I had a hell of a closing argument and didn't want to throw it away.

"I put on a heavy tweed blazer and ran to the stairwell of a nearby parking garage adjacent to the court house. It was summer. It was very hot -- I would say ninety-six degrees. So I ran up and down those stairs as fast as I could for fifteen minutes. My pants stuck to my legs and my white shirt was soaked and my tie was stuck to my shirt. Then I staggered down the aisle of the courtroom, grabbing my chest, and slumped into my seat."

The opposing counsel leaped to his feet and pled with the judge to grant Gauthier's request for a continuance. "I don't think Mr. Gauthier is well enough to continue."

Gauthier feigned frailty, "I can go on, I think. I do not wish to cause the court any trouble."

The judge leaned over his bench in concern: "Mr. Gauthier, I don't think it is in your best interest for us to continue."

So Gauthier went home happy. He was even happier ten days later when he obtained a $1.5 million settlement.

While these career adventures made Gauthier one of the most notorious lawyers in New Orleans, they also made him wealthy, earning him upward of $100 million. But they didn't bring him the serious reputation he craved. In 1984, though, he decided to change that. He bought a shopping center and converted one wing of it into a two-story, state-of-the-art legal complex that boasted a fully appointed courtroom, special jury rooms, and a law library rivaling that of the nearby Loyola University School of Law so that he could practice moot court sessions to perfect his strategies.

"I decided to rehearse each lawsuit in advance," he said. "So I built a courtroom with professional video recording equipment. The mock jurors are able to judge me instantly. And I'm frequently unimpressive. But at least I have the time to change my approach."

He also pioneered the use of "shadow juries" in Louisiana. Gauthier, his sister Totsy, and his brother-in-law Phil King hire jurors that match, as closely as possible, the real jury he would face in each trial. These jurors, who are paid about $50 per day, attend court each day, and are polled twice daily. On the final day, they go into real deliberations in Gauthier's jury room, which he monitors with audio and video equipment, and also can observe through a mirrored w...

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