Gun Lawsuits Hurt All Of Us

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Trial lawyers, anti-gun activists, mayors and the Clinton Administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have a "simple solution" to the complex problem of gun violence: sue gun makers for the public costs of criminal, negligent and self-destructive gun misuses. In the words of H. L. Mencken: "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."

The lawsuits threaten democracy because they would replace the will of the majority as expressed through the legislature with the determinations of an unelected judiciary. In our democratic republic, Congress, and Congress alone, is Constitutionally empowered to regulate interstate commerce. But lawsuit proponents have given up on democracy. Unable to convince legislators that removing guns from the hands of law abiding citizens will reduce crime, activists, trial lawyers, mayors and HUD are attempting to use the courts to impose their views on a skeptical public.

In addition, popular products cause harm too. Thousands of people die or are injured yearly in automobile accidents and vehicular homicides, via faulty medical procedures and the misuse of prescription drugs, from eating fatty foods and as a result of alcohol abuse. If the civil law embraces the principle that companies like Budweiser, Bayer, Ford and McDonald's are responsible when people voluntarily use legal, non-defective products and bad results occur, then consumers will have fewer goods to choose from.

Some companies would be unable to survive the lawsuits and go bankrupt. Others might simply move overseas to countries that still hold individuals rather than inanimate objects responsible when people take criminal, stupid, negligent and/or self-destructive actions.

The lawsuits also only look at one side of the ledger. Imagine suing prescription drug makers for the cost to society from overdoses, allergic reactions, intentional poisonings and instances where doctors prescribe the wrong drug - which happens more than 100,000 times a year - while ignoring the substantial benefits from prescription drugs.

Guns, like drugs, save lives and money. Research shows that citizens use guns two and a half to five times more often to prevent crimes than to commit them - for a net societal savings from defensive gun uses exceeding $38 billion annually.

Indeed, firearms are the most effective way to protect oneself against criminals - which is why police carry guns rather than going unarmed or carrying knives. Persons defending themselves with guns during an assault were injured only 12 percent of the time, compared to 25 percent for those using other weapons and 27 percent for those offering no resistance. And, women faced with assault are 2.5 times less likely to suffer serious injury if they respond with a firearm rather than attempting to defend themselves with other weapons or by offering no resistance at all.

The public apparently recognizes the danger these lawsuits pose. While it is true that polls show that a majority of Amercians favor stricter gun laws, this number has fallen substantially in recent years. A Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll taken in June of 1999 found that only 62 percent of Americans favored stricter gun laws, compared to 78 percent 1990. And even after the tragic school shootings in Colorado and Georgia, the number of people who said they would not consider gun control a major issue when voting increased from 19 percent to 21!

More to the point, a poll conducted by the Tarrance Group found that while eighty-four percent of the public feel that people who use firearms illegally should be held responsible, only 5 percent feel that manufacturers or retailers should be held responsible for firearm misuse.

In the end, the true victims of these lawsuits will be voters, consumers and the public. Voters will see their choices made in the voting booth negated in the courtroom. Consumers will have fewer food, recreation and entertainment choices as lawyers, using the same arguments made in gun lawsuits, set their sights on industries with deeper pockets. And the public will be less safe since criminals will face an increasingly unarmed populace as the lawsuits make firearms less readily available to the law-abiding.