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The Life and Career of Dennis Henigan, Director of Legal Action Project on Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
by Regan Morris
The cases mark the first time that gunshot victims and their families have been awarded such significant amounts of money from gun dealers and manufacturers.
In the first case last July, a gun dealer in West Virginia agreed to pay $1 million to two former police officers who were shot during a robbery with a gun sold by the dealer to a gun trafficker. A Philadelphia gun dealer agreed in August to pay $850,000 to a family whose 7-year-old boy was killed with a gun. The third case involved the unprecedented $2.5-million settlement in the lawsuit brought by victims of the sniper who terrorized the Washington, DC, area in the autumn of 2002. The victims sued the gun shop Bull's Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma, WA, and gun maker Bushmaster Firearms of Windham, ME. The D.C. sniper used a Bushmaster assault weapon.
"It was very much a breakthrough year for us," Henigan said. "Those victories were really the result of years of work developing the right legal theories and bringing the right kinds of cases. It all seemed to happen within a three-month period when three different cases settled, each of which we would have regarded as a landmark. The fact that the three of them came in close order was just especially important."
Critics accuse the Brady Center of trying to bankrupt the gun industry and ban all guns. Mr. Henigan, 53, said the center wants to make rifles and handguns safer and wants to ban assault weapons. The Brady Center aims to force the industry to stop selling to dealers known for putting guns on the streets illegally.
"I think there's been what I call a quiet revolution in the case law of gun-industry liability," he said. "It's not that the industry hasn't won some cases; it has. But even as recently as five years ago, there were really no appellate court decisions holding that gun manufacturers could be liable for the criminal use of guns."
Mr. Henigan points to several cases to back up the quiet revolution theory. Recently, the Indiana Supreme Court, the Ohio Supreme Court, and appellate courts in New Jersey and Illinois reinstated cases brought by cities in those states.
"I would also point [out], there's a very important decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a case called Ileto vs. Glock that arose from the Jewish community center shootings in Los Angeles," he said. "We're beginning to see the formation of the legal foundation for the gun-industry liability, and the settlements that we were able to achieve last year I think reflect the movement of the law because it's very clear that courts are willing to let cases go forward that might have been dismissed on the pleadings 10 years ago."
Mr. Henigan, who was named one of the 10 best lawyers in America in 2004 by Lawyers Weekly USA, decided he wanted to work in public service fulltime only after he'd made partner at Foley & Lardner, a big corporate firm. He said he liked his pro bono work better than his corporate law practice and decided at age 37 to take the Brady Center job.
Mr. Henigan is a master at debate. He was on the debate team during high school and college, and his father was a debate and rhetoric professor. Shortly after joining the Brady Center, Mr. Henigan decided he needed to better understand the other side of the gun debate. He had never fired a gun.
"I had my brother-in-law take me out into the fields of the eastern shores of Virginia with his hunting buddies, and we shot everything from hunting rifles to assault weapons to powerful pistols to .22s, and it was important," he said.
The experience made Mr. Henigan understand the recreational appeal of guns, and he said the Brady Center had no problem with the recreational use of guns. When asked if he liked firing the weapons, Mr. Henigan chose his words carefully.
"It also made me appreciate the incredible power of these weapons," he said. "I could appreciate it intellectually, but actually firing a .45-caliber gun is a feeling that I think probably everyone that works on the issue should have. They should come face to face with that power."
The Brady Center is very concerned about the momentum for tort reform in Washington, which Mr. Henigan said could result in gun victims being denied their right of access to the courts and give gun makers special treatment above the law.
A bill to grant immunity to the gun industry was defeated in the Senate last March after the NRA urged their backers to kill their own bill because gun-control amendments had been added to the legislation. A new bill will be debated in Congress soon.
Mr. Henigan thinks the three settlements last year against the gun makers will help the gun-control lobby's fight in the Senate.
"And yet, none of the defendants, none of the gun companies, have gone out of business as a result of the settlements," he said. "You have irresponsible gun sellers having to pay damages, and yet nobody went out of business. So I think it's increasingly difficult for the gun lobby to continually insist that our goal is to put manufacturers and gun dealers out of business."
If the immunity bill had passed last March, all three of the cases would have been blocked, he said. The victims would not have received damages, and the gun sellers would have no incentive to act responsibly if they were given immunity from civil liability, he said.
Mr. Henigan, who grew up in the Washington, DC, area and went to the University of Virginia Law School, said the Brady Center would like to see more childproof guns.
"Our goal is to change the way the gun industry does business. We want to change the design of guns. We want safer guns. We want guns that have safety devices that will prevent use by children and teenagers. We want to change the way guns are marketed and sold. We want gun manufacturers to take more responsibility for the dealers they are selling guns through."
While much of the gun industry conducts honorable business, Mr. Henigan said too many gun dealers knowingly sell weapons to dealers who will sell them illegally on the street. He mentions gun-industry insider, whistleblower Bob Ricker, who has testified that the gun industry does not do enough to keep guns off the streets.
Mr. Henigan said he knew he wanted to work as a public interest lawyer but that he considered various other causes.
"It was an issue that I felt strongly about," he said. "I didn't feel that I would ever have any doubt about the policy positions of the organization and being an advocate for those positions."
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