NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Marc Morial says money is not the city's main objective as it collaborates with some trial lawyers in suing handgun manufacturers and other parties. Money had better not be the objective.

Ten manufacturers produce 90 percent of the handguns made domestically. The entire industry's annual gross from handgun sales, $2 billion to $3 billion, cannot provide much of a windfall -- after the lawyers take their cuts -- for the 50 or more cities that may soon be suing.The cities say they are trying to recoup the costs of misuses of the manufacturers' products by individuals. However, although different litigating governments are relying on different theories, all the arguments assume something problematic -- that private ownership of handguns is a determinable net cost to governments.

New Orleans' product liability suit against 15 manufacturers, three trade associations and several local pawnshops seeks damages for sales of guns that were "unreasonably dangerous." They supposedly were because they did not incorporate "recognition technologies" -- e.g., firing mechanisms activated only by a particular set of fingerprints or by a signal sent by a computer chip in a ring worn by the owner -- that would prevent their use by children or by anyone other than the owner.

Morial says the suit is an incentive for manufacturers to produce a better product. He candidly says the reason the city is collaborating with trial lawyers working on a contingency-fee basis is that the city cannot afford to finance what may be protracted litigation. He is equally candid -- probably to the discomfiture of the lawyers -- in saying that it is difficult precisely to ascertain the supposed costs of gun use.

Chicago is seeking $433 million compensation for police and hospital costs ascribed to gun violence since 1994. But a University of Chicago law professor, John B. Lott, argues that Americans supplement police services and save municipalities large sums by using guns defensively against criminals 2 million times a year, 98 percent of the time just by brandishing guns.

What about the welfare of children, which is today's reason of first resort for advocates of government action? Considering that bicycles, space heaters, swimming pools and cigarette lighters each kill more children under 15 than are killed annually by gun accidents (200 in 1996), most of the approximately 80 million Americans who own 200 million to 240 million guns must be quite careful.

Some supporters of the gun suits hope to bankrupt, by litigation costs, gun manufacturers -- makers of a legal product which only 16 percent of Americans favor banning. Thus the suits are weapons of those of anti-democrats who pursue social change by judicial fiat (litigation) rather than persuasion (legislation).

The suits are extensions of the brazen cynicism of the tobacco suits, which have successfully asserted, falsely, that cigarette smoking costs government money. (Not only are cigarettes the world's most heavily taxed consumer good, governments also profit from smoking by the early deaths of smokers who do not collect medical and pension entitlements.)

The gun suits also mimic the tobacco suits in displacing responsibility. The tobacco companies are being held liable for consumers' foolish choices in using a legal product widely known to be harmful even when used properly. The gun manufacturers may be held liable for individuals' misuses of products that are supposed to be capable of inflicting harm, even death.

The suits are the most recent wrinkle in the pernicious practice of delegating the pursuit of public purposes to entrepreneurial trial lawyers, and the use of litigation to revise social policy and seize new sources of revenues for governments. However, there will be other wrinkles. Imagine:

New Orleans profits from casino gambling, as do other cities and states. Forty-seven states profit from lotteries or other forms of gambling. Perhaps soon some trial lawyers will gather some "addictive gamblers" and sue cities and states for the financial and other pain and suffering. Such suits will be deserved punishment for governments that have improvidently subcontracted policymaking to trial lawyers.

Washington Post Writers Group