Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan.
There are a significant number of people in the United States who would say that what Jon Lowy does for a living is downright un-American. But the lines have been long drawn in the war on guns and Lowy, Director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center in Washington, D.C., has spent much of his legal career on the front lines and as a master strategist in the battle to hold politicians, gun manufacturers, sellers and owners accountable for gun safety and, when appropriate, the deaths and maimings caused by firearms.
Lawdragon: You’ve been with the Brady Center for 17 years. Could you trace for us how you came to be there? Were gun issues a cause for you before they were your career?
Jonathan Lowy: I entered law school wanting to be like my father, a trial lawyer who fought for the little guy. I had unspecific public interest goals, but fighting for Native American rights or victims of corporate misconduct generally seemed more likely than focusing on gun violence prevention. After litigating in firms for six years, and on my own for three, a position opened up at Brady, trying cutting edge tort cases against the corporate gun lobby. At my interview, [then-Brady Legal Director] Denny Henigan said to me, “The NRA is the greatest threat to public safety in America today.” Jury trials and appellate arguments against what Jim Brady called “the evil empire” was an irresistible combination.
LD: Were there particular courses or professors at Harvard or University of Virginia Law that influenced your views or career choice?
JL: Not really. Out of school experiences were far more influential. I took a semester off from Harvard to herd goats for a Navajo family in New Mexico; and right before law school I went to Bhopal, India to help my dad represent victims of the Union Carbide gas leak. After those experiences, it was hard to spend my life working for socially-destructive corporations, or to not follow my heart.
LD: Did you consider not going into public policy/public interest law? What did you see in front of you, coming out of law school?
JL: My plan was to first work at a large firm for a few years to pay off my loans, resist the golden handcuffs, then do what I wanted. I often thought of that Kurt Vonnegut line: ”Be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end you are what you pretend to be.” Big firm life wasn’t for me.
LD: Part of your work is representing shooting victims and their families in court in civil actions against gun manufacturers. With more than 100,000 shootings a year in the United States – how do you choose the cases you take?
JL: We try to create the most positive impact we can, to save the most lives. In selecting cases we balance the potential for changing the law, educating the public, sending a message to irresponsible gun companies that they must put people above profits. We like to represent law enforcement, who understand better than anyone the dangers of gun violence and are too often killed trying to protect the rest of us. But I think of all the gun violence victims we represent as true American heroes. I tell my clients, “Every decade there are more than a million victims of gun violence in America, but only a few take on the gun industry in court.” Every case we bring is representative of thousands that never get to court.
LD: Given the level of commitment, the emotional intensity of the cases and the scale of the work – is burnout an issue? Is this something that a lot of lawyers can do for a while and then they do something else perhaps?
JL: I think the opposite is true. My clients are a constant inspiration – people whose children, spouses, brothers and sisters have been senselessly killed, yet they channel their grief to spare others what they have suffered. I find that corporate lawyers who partner with me and my team (through our Lawyers for a Safer America alliance) recharge their batteries by litigating these impactful, life-saving cases. Our work is an antidote to lawyer burnout.
LD: Given the cost of a legal education, is it harder these days to find great young lawyers able and willing to work in public interest law?
JL: Not at all. I have top notch attorneys begging to work at Brady, often at a significant financial sacrifice. They know it’s a rare privilege to create new tort law and new constitutional law, make major progress on one of our most pressing public health issues, argue in courts across the country on behalf of true American heroes – and craft legislation and engage in public advocacy. Most days, I’d pay to do what I do.
LD: Gun control is one of the most contentious issues in the country. Do you ever feel like you’re really winning, in the long run, or is it more about holding the line?
JL: First, we are winning. We’re creating precedent in courts across the country that puts a price on gun industry conduct that contributes to gun violence, and we’re forcing gun companies to take responsible actions to stop supplying the criminal gun market. We’ve helped defeat hundreds of attacks on common sense gun laws; we’re creating a body of Second Amendment law that recognizes that we do not have to live in a guns-everywhere world. Our work saves lives.
Second, almost all Americans – including gun owners and NRA members -- agree that we need common sense laws and business practices to keep guns out of the wrong hands; it’s just that the small dissenting minority is vociferous, and supported by a billion-dollar industry desperate to hang on to profits. I would welcome gun owners onto my juries; they understand better than anyone that gun dealers shouldn’t be selling guns to straw purchasers or traffickers, and that the bad apples in the business spoil the bunch.
LD: What are your major frustrations working on this issue for so long?
JL: It’s not that the gun lobby outspends us by millions, which is true, but we can outmaneuver and outsmart them.
And while it is infuriating that Congress ignores the will of 90% of Americans for common sense gun laws, I refuse to believe that America will remain the only industrialized country that tolerates the daily slaughter of its children and adults. Americans know that our people aren’t more violent, crazy or criminal than the rest of the world; it’s just that our gun policy is insane. Change will come.
The major frustration is when we beat the gun lobby, they get Congress and state legislatures to change the law to block us. They rewrite tort laws, freedom of information law, even rules of evidence to give scofflaw gun companies special advantages in court that no other litigants gets – certainly not mothers whose children have been killed because of those companies’ negligence. It’s like playing football against a perpetual loser who constantly moves the goalposts and changes the rules. But still, we’ve never been more active or more successful. It just takes longer.
LD: You’ve found the time to write a couple of historical novels. Do you have any other books in you? What else do you like to do in your so-called spare time?
JL: I have a few unpublished manuscripts I hope to dust off when I get some time. A wonderful wife and teenage kids keep me busy – and after every latest shooting, I try to give them extra hugs. If I can work in an hour of tennis now and then, that’s a bonus.