For Tina Johnstone, February’s landmark verdict in Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, in which a jury found 15 gun manufacturers guilty of irresponsibly marketing and distributing firearms, was the crowning moment in a seven-year struggle to curb gun violence.
The New York case held the manufacturers liable for saturating states that had lax gun regulations with more firearms than the legal markets there could support. The practice created a market for illegal resellers, who then introduced firearms into more strictly regulated urban areas, such as New York City.
Johnstone had more than an ideological stake in the case. In 1992 her husband, David, was shot and killed by a 16-year-old in San Francisco. Because of this personal tragedy, Johnstone signed on as the suit’s first plaintiff and helped lawyer Elisa Barnes organize the case.
Legal experts expect the victory to open the floodgates for similar suits, including one by Johnstone herself: In an effort to strengthen Barnes’ suit by limiting it to New York victims, she ultimately withdrew her name as a plaintiff, but plans to file a new suit in California later this year based on her husband’s shooting.
Litigation isn’t Johnstone’s sole vehicle for hellraising. When the Senate began debating the Brady Bill in 1993, she and a friend, Ellen Freudenheim, placed hundreds of pairs of shoes — symbolizing people killed by gun violence in New York state — on the sidewalk in front of then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s Manhattan office.
This eerie protest planted the seed for the first Silent March. In September 1994, Johnstone and Freudenheim collected approximately 38,300 pairs of shoes from the families of gun-violence victims and assembled them in front of the U.S. Capitol. They have since organized two other Silent Marches.
Last year, Johnstone left her job at the Staten Island Botanical Garden to help run a newly founded, yet-to-be-named organization created to support grassroots gun control groups across the country.
Taking on deep-pocketed gun manufacturers and a formidable gun lobby is a challenging task, especially for a single mother of two. But while Johnstone admits to feeling tired, she is not about to give up. “If we had national gun licensing in this country, we would have fewer deaths,” she says. “It has to happen.”