Gun Lawsuits: Bad Law and Bad Public Policy

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Attorney Elisa Barnes is suing gun manufacturers on behalf of two women who lost loved ones to criminal gun use. She argues that gun manufacturers negligently flood cities with more guns than they could expect to sell to law-abiding citizens, thus aiding and abetting criminals in obtaining firearms. Therefore, she concludes, the firearm industry should compensate her clients for the suffering they have endured.

If it succeeds, this lawsuit will establish bad law and bad public policy. It would establish bad law because it asks the courts to legislate. In a multitude of similar lawsuits, courts have consistently held that questions concerning whether firearms should be legal and widely available are for legislative assemblies to decide. In addition, the suit would reverse well-established tort law: manufacturers are not responsible for the criminal misuse of their products. Should automobile makers be held responsible for vehicular homicides committed by drunken drivers or people in the grip of road rage? Criminals also use knives, prescription drugs and household products to commit crimes, should courts hold the manufacturers of these products at fault? If gun makers are held liable when criminals misuse guns, where will the lawsuit parade end?

It would be bad public policy because guns prevent more harm than they cause. Criminals fear armed citizens more than police. Why? Nearly 3,000 criminals are lawfully killed each year by armed civilians - more than three times the number killed by the police. An additional 9,000 to 17,000 criminals are wounded by civilians each year. Numerous studies have shown that citizens use guns in self-defense between 800,000 and 3.6 million times annually (in the vast majority of cases merely showing the firearm prevents the crime), with the most comprehensive study estimating more than 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year. This far exceeds the number of crimes committed with firearms each year.

In addition, a recent study by economist John Lott examining the impact of "concealed carry" permits found that:

  • Concealed handgun laws reduce murder by 8.5 percent and rape by 5 percent.
  • Had liberal concealed carry laws prevailed nationally, there would have been 1,600 fewer murders and 4,200 fewer rapes each year.

However, not every city or state has seen the drop in crime that has accompanied the liberalization of concealed carry laws. States like New York, where this lawsuit is being brought, allow local officials discretion in issuing concealed carry permits, and they have issued relatively few. These states suffer a 30 percent higher murder rate and a 19 percent higher incidence of rape than states with more liberal laws.

Relying on police protection is not a realistic option since at any one time there are only about 75,000 police on the streets to protect more than 260 million people - which is why police primarily investigate crimes after they occur rather than prevent them. Therefore, people's best security against crime is their own willingness to defend themselves. And the best defense against violence is an armed response. For example, women faced with assault are 2.5 times less likely to suffer serious injury if they respond with a firearm rather than by trying to defend themselves with less effective weapons or by offering no resistance at all.

Perhaps the general public and crime victims should file a class action suit against Ms. Barnes and groups like Handgun Control, Inc., whose lawsuits and successful lobbying for restrictive gun laws make the public less safe. Guns don't increase crime, foolish gun control policies do, and those that encourage them should be held accountable for the resulting harm.