Under the Gun

Tales of anguish fill a Brooklyn courtroom as the kin of shooting victims battle the firearms industry

Freddie Hamilton cried as she sat in the back of the courtroom, listening to the story of a woman she did not know. Inside the witness box, Veronica Trott fingered a crumpled piece of Kleenex, swallowed hard, and told a few dozen strangers about the night a young man with a 9mm handgun killed her son. Then Trott, 45, walked slowly back to her seat in the courtroom's spectator section. Another stranger, Gail Fox, squeezed her arm around Trott's shoulders.

Listening to Trott's testimony, Hamilton, 55, and Fox, 45, felt an instant sense of camaraderie. All three women had sons who fell victim to handguns. "It's the empathy— knowing what they felt, and what they have lived through," Hamilton says. "When something like this happens, a little piece of you dies." Now these mothers are among the seven plaintiffs battling the gun industry in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.

Their lawsuit aims to hold more than 40 gun manufacturers and distributors responsible for the deaths and injuries of their kin. The plaintiffs charge that these companies engaged in negligent marketing and distribution by oversupplying firearms to southern states with weak guncontrol laws and then turning a blind eye when some of these weapons ended up in the hands of New York criminals. The gun companies dispute these claims. They insist they fully cooperate with law enforcement efforts to stop gun trafficking and that they do not oversupply certain states.

Before the shooting: Stephen Fox was 15 when a friend shot him, leaving a bullet in his brain.
courtesy of Elisa Barnes
Before the shooting: Stephen Fox was 15 when a friend shot him, leaving a bullet in his brain.

Manhattan attorney Elisa Barnes, who filed this lawsuit in 1995, found many of her plaintiffs through gun-control groups. A teen-ager working in Barnes's law office recruited the mother of a slain friend. Another plaintiff contacted Barnes after spotting an ad in The Chief, a newspaper for municipal employees. The plaintiffs in this case include one wife, one father, and five mothers of gunshot victims. They range from a nursing-home aide and a stay-at-home mom to an urban planner and the director of a child-welfare agency.

Life has been an emotional roller coaster for these plaintiffs ever since their trial started on January 4. Over the last few weeks, each has made the pilgrimage to the sixth floor of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn to testify before a jury of 10 women and two men. Jurors' eyelids droop during the testimony of some expert witnesses, including law enforcement officials and college professors. But no one has dozed while a plaintiff was on the stand.

The plaintiffs' stories are riveting. But they constitute only a tiny fraction of the total court testimony— just a few hours over the course of a trial that is expected to last at least a month. The jurors will likely make their decision based not on the plaintiffs' stories, but on what they learn about how responsibly the gun industry operates. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs' role is critical. As they take their turns on the witness stand, they are powerful reminders of the human cost of gun violence. But in their fight to win this lawsuit, the plaintiffs have had to sacrifice their privacy and discuss the most painful experiences of their lives before a room full of strangers.

Barnes hopes that her clients find the trial experience empowering. Glancing around the wood-paneled, high-ceilinged courtroom of Judge Jack B. Weinstein, the lawyer says, "I think [the plaintiffs] were shocked at having the issues surrounding their personal tragedy heard and aired in such a formal setting . . . with the [former] head of the ATF coming in on their case and jurors taking four weeks out of their lives."

"where do you live? How many children do you have? What type of work do you do?" All the plaintiffs faced the same queries as they settled into the chair on the witness stand. The details of their lives that emerged were sometimes mundane, sometimes funny. But Barnes and her team of attorneys did not wait long before peppering each plaintiff with tougher questions, like "When was the last time you saw your son?"

At first, Damon Slade sounded like an ordinary teenager. His mother, Andrea Slade-Lewis, told the jury that he had collected comic books and baseball cards. But soon her testimony turned to the 1993 night that her 18-year-old son was shot inside the elevator of a Yonkers apartment building. Damon's friend, who was with him that evening, later told his mother about her son's final minutes. "When Damon was dying," Slade-Lewis testified, "[his friend] was holding Damon in his hand, and Damon says to him: 'Tell my mother that I love her and take care of my sisters.' "

When she got her turn on the witness stand, Freddie Hamilton proudly recounted the successes of her five surviving children, who include an attorney, a social worker, and a Paine-Webber employee. A few minutes later, however, she faced questions about why her 17-year-old son Njuzi Ray was not attending high school in 1993, when he was fatally shot on a Brooklyn street corner. Prior to his murder, Njuzi had battled mental illness. "We took him to a psychiatrist," his mother told the jurors. "Eventually, the diagnosis was manic-depressive."

Afterward, on a bench outside the courtroom, Hamilton pondered her testimony. "I'm an extremely private person, so I had to discuss on the witness stand things that family members did not know," she said. "My son was a very private person, too. At one point, I thought, 'If he was at this [trial], he would die all over again.' If he saw me sharing all his personal business, he'd say, 'What's wrong with you?' "

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