Democrat Gary Mayor Eddie Melton, previously a state senator, speaks to his former colleagues on a bill ending Gary’s lawsuit against members of the firearm industry on Feb. 20, 2024. Leslie Bonilla Muñiz | Indiana Capital Chronicle
Democrat Gary Mayor Eddie Melton, previously a state senator, speaks to his former colleagues on a bill ending Gary’s lawsuit against members of the firearm industry on Feb. 20, 2024. Leslie Bonilla Muñiz | Indiana Capital Chronicle
GARY — In July 1999, two undercover police officers entered a gun shop in Lake Station. One posed as a juvenile and asked to buy a .40-caliber Glock handgun. The clerk said no.

But when the second officer said he would buy the weapon for the feigned juvenile, the clerk agreed.

As the one officer filled out the paperwork, the officer posing as a juvenile asked if the store sold any then-illegal high-capacity magazines. After initially stating they didn’t, the clerk eventually told the officer to come back the next day to pick one up for $100.

Over two months that year, undercover officers from Gary purchased at least nine handguns and numerous boxes of ammunition through “straw sales” like the one in Lake Station — despite openly declaring to store clerks they were convicted felons or juveniles.

Those investigations played a central role in a lawsuit filed by Gary that same year against a slew of American gun manufacturers and sellers.

The suit alleged the gun industry engaged in a “calculated strategy of willful blindness” regarding the marketing and distribution of the weapons over a two-year period in the city that saw 124 people murdered with handguns.

Now, nearly a quarter-century later, that lawsuit has been targeted and killed by Republican lawmakers who said it “contradicts” the state’s pro-Second Amendment stance.

The suit was the last of its kind in the U.S.


House Bill 1235 became law in March. It bars any city, town or other political subdivision from suing gun manufacturers, sellers, dealers or trade associations for any reason. Two narrow exceptions are provided: breach of contract or warranty, and to enforce zoning laws.

The legislation was made retroactive to Aug. 27, 1999 — just three days before Gary filed its lawsuit.

It also came a year after the start of the discovery phase of the case in which a judge ordered gun makers and sellers to provide documents that could reveal the inner workings of the industry.

Rep. Chris Jeter, R-Fishers, who authored the legislation, was blunt about his intent.

“House Bill 1235 is sort of a continuation of a long-running effort to remove the last and final lawsuit against gun manufacturers that has been pending in the United States,” he said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing this year.

Lawmakers on previous occasions have tried to pass bills eliminating the litigation. Courts on three separate occasions have upheld the case as having merit.

Jeter explained one of his concerns this time around was the fact gun sellers would be required to hand over the personal information of people who legally purchased guns as part of the discovery process.

That information could potentially be made public — although courts could also determine to seal those records or redact personal or identifying information.

Jeter did not respond to interview requests for this story.


But gun-control advocates are slamming legislators for what they say is an attempt to commandeer the state’s judicial system at the behest of the gun lobby and in the name of Second Amendments rights.

Paul Helmke, the former three-term Republican mayor of Fort Wayne who now leads Indiana University’s Civic Leaders Center, blasted GOP lawmakers for intervening in the courts to give gun manufacturers and sellers near total immunity.

“They don’t believe in the rule of law, and they don’t trust the Indiana court system to do the right thing,” said Helmke, the former CEO of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Whether the retroactive law holds up in court is yet to be seen. A judge in July will hear arguments over whether to dismiss Gary’s lawsuit following the legislation.

Courts could determine the bill runs afoul of the state’s special legislation statute, argued Helmke. The policy prohibits any legislation that singles out an individual case, person, company or industry for special treatment that does not apply to the general population.

“I think this law has got to be found unconstitutional,” Helmke said.

Indiana isn’t alone in its new position barring local governments from suing gun makers. More than 30 states have enacted similar legislation, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

What makes Indiana’s bill unique is the fact it attempts to retroactively quash a lawsuit, noted David Pucino, the center’s director and deputy chief counsel.

“There are other states that have taken similar moves, but this is the only time I’ve seen one of these that has been so explicitly focused on preventing a city that has an active lawsuit from getting redress,” he said.


The ramifications of the bill will be felt far beyond Gary. The legislation now allows only the state to bring lawsuits against the gun industry on behalf of municipalities.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, however, indicated this year he has no intentions of suing gun makers, according to a report from ProPublica.

“That’s not gonna happen on my watch,” Rokita told a top official with the National Shooting Sports Foundation in January while attending one of its trade shows in Las Vegas.

That leaves local governments no recourse to hold gun dealers and manufacturers accountable in their communities even in instances where there is evidence of wrongful activity.

Gary Mayor Eddie Melton warned that although the legislation targets his city, every municipality should be concerned about lawmakers usurping their right to seek access to the courts.

“HB 1235 is a shocking and unprecedented attempt at unconstitutional government overreach,” Melton said in a release. “And let’s be clear, Hoosiers will pay the price.”

AIM Indiana, the state association representing municipalities, opposes all legislation that preempts cities and towns, which includes the new law, CEO Jennifer Simmons wrote in an email.

But the most dangerous fallout from the state’s broad immunity will be encouraging bad actors in the gun industry to continue acting badly, argued Pucino with the Giffords Law Center.

Dealers that sell weapons to felons and juveniles have a competitive advantage over responsible sellers, he explained. The local immunity offered through HB 1235 will only drive more unlawful sales as dealers relax their standards to keep up with the competition, according to Pucino.

“In general, this leads to an environment where gun trafficking is easier and illegal gun sales are easier,” he said. “We know that those are major drivers of gun violence.”

Julia Chester, a long-time member of the Indiana chapter of the gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand Action, said it’s frightening that lawmakers would strip cities of legal authority and pass a law that could put more illegal guns in the hands of criminals.

“It makes me angry and it makes me feel unsafe as a citizen that people who are making decisions about our society don’t have our best interests in mind,” the Purdue University neuroscientist said.


While Indiana Republicans offer more legal protections to gun manufacturers and sellers, other states are taking steps that make it easier to bring lawsuits against the multi-billion-dollar industry.

In California, a new law took effect last year allowing cities and individual citizens to sue gun makers.

In March, Chicago filed a lawsuit against Glock, a gun manufacturer the city alleges is facilitating the spread of illegal machine guns by selling a cheap device that converts semiautomatic pistols into an assault-style weapon.

It’s the first litigation brought against a gun maker under Illinois’ new Firearm Industry Responsibility Act, which allows the state or private individuals to file civil lawsuits for violations under the state’s consumer fraud legislation.

Colorado last year also repealed its law giving immunity to gun industry members from civil suits and removed a statute requiring those who sue the industry to pay the company’s legal fees in dismissed cases.

Indiana and Arkansas are now the only states in the country that still include punitive provisions that force victims who do attempt to file lawsuits against the gun industry to pay their legal fees if the case is dismissed.

Since 2021, nine states have passed laws opening up the possibility for more litigation against gun makers.

Pucino with the Giffords Law Center said the changes stem in part from the $73 million settlement reached in 2022 in the lawsuit filed by victims’ families in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The shooter used a Remington rifle to kill 20 first-graders in 2012.

The gun maker agreed to the payment, shattering the long-standing assumption manufacturers couldn’t be held liable for damages, he noted.

“I think that changed a lot of mindsets within the legal industry and opened eyes to the fact that the gun industry actually can be held accountable,” Pucino said.

But the opposite is happening in Indiana, said state Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, who has been an outspoken critic of HB 1235. She said efforts to kill the Gary lawsuit and remove cities’ ability to sue gun makers is proof Republican lawmakers have no interest in holding the industry accountable.

That likely won’t change anytime soon, Hatcher noted.

“I realized early on that Indiana is usually the last or close to last state to come in line with movements of the time as people’s opinions and views are changing,” Hatcher said. “I just suspect this will be one more thing that Indiana is last or close to last in doing.”
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