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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of gun manufacturers filed suit against federal, state and local officials on Wednesday, charging that efforts to impose safety measures were a conspiracy that violated constitutional guarantees of free trade.
The suit, the latest volley in the battle between the industry and gun control supporters, was filed in U.S. federal court in Atlanta by seven gun makers and an industry group against the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut and officials from 14 municipalities.
"We are here to expose a plan that brazenly places political self-interest above police and citizen safety," said Robert Delfay, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation that represents gun makers and distributors, at a news conference.
The federal government, some states and municipalities have been using legal action and police gun-purchasing contracts to pressure the gun industry to make weapons safer and tighten up on sales practices in an effort to curb shooting deaths.
The gun makers said a "conspiracy" by U.S., state and local officials to impose nationwide manufacturing standards violated the Constitution, which gives only Congress the power to regulate interstate or international commerce.
"We vigorously object to the suggestion that any manufacturer which does not subscribe to the ill-founded demands of these public officials is not making the safest possible firearms," Delfay said.
New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a leader of the movement to use localities' purchasing power to force manufacturers to make guns safer, called the lawsuit "frivolous" and vowed to defeat it.
"It shows what we have done has (the industry) on the ropes. They are scared, they are worried and they are trying to retaliate against the government," said Spitzer, a named defendant in the lawsuit. Other defendants were HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and 14 local officials.
On Thursday, Cuomo was set to join mayors and others to announce an expansion of the Safer Guns Coalition, a group that has pledged to give preference to manufacturers who take steps to make their weapons safer when purchasing guns for their police forces.
In the lawsuit, the manufacturers ask the court to forbid the defendants from setting any new national regulations that are not authorized by Congress on the design, manufacture, advertising, or distribution of handguns.
The Clinton administration has pressed for new gun control measures in the wake of last year's deadly attack at Colorado's Columbine High School and other shootings. Thirty U.S. cities and counties have sued gun makers to cover costs related to gun violence, and Clinton has said the U.S. government might join that effort if it could not be settled.
In March, the U.S. government dropped its threat of legal action against Smith & Wesson, the nation's biggest maker of handguns, after the company agreed to install child-safety trigger locks and develop other technologies to prevent firing by anyone other than the owner. Smith & Wesson, a unit of Tomkins Plc, was not a party to the suit filed Wednesday.
"We'll see 'em in court," White House spokesman Jake Siewert, who accompanied Clinton on a trip to North Carolina, said about the industry lawsuit.
The manufacturers who filed suit were Beretta U.S.A. Corp., Browning Arms Inc., Colt's Manufacturing Inc., Glock Inc., SIG Arms Inc., Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc. and Taurus International Manufacturing. The National Shooting Sports Foundation also filed suit.
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