Gun Lawsuits Make Us All Less Safe

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

In early 1998, Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell first proposed suing gun manufacturers to recover costs related to firearm violence in their cities. Though Rendell has put his plans for a lawsuit on hold, Mayor Marc Morial of New Orleans and Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago have taken up his suggestion and filed suit. Other cities seem likely to file suit in the near future.

Chicago's lawsuit borrows the theory developed by Mayor Rendell: (1) guns are a public nuisance and(2) gun manufacturers knowingly flood cities with more guns than they could expect to sell to law-abiding citizens, thus aiding and abetting criminals in obtaining firearms. The New Orleans lawsuit argues that guns as they are currently manufactured are unreasonably dangerous in design based upon an unfounded supposition: gun makers have suppressed the introduction of safety devices which would prevent unauthorized users from firing guns. In both cases, the mayors argue the public health and safety costs associated with treating and preventing firearm injuries should be reimbursed to the city by the firearm industry.

If they succeed, these lawsuits will establish bad law and bad public policy.

They would establish bad law because they ask 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. For instance in Wasylow v. Glock, Inc., the court ruled that "It is the province of legislative or authorized administrative bodies, and not the judicial branch, to advance through democratic channels polices that would directly or indirectly either 1) ban some classes of handguns or 2) transform firearm enterprises into insurers against misuse of their products. Frustration at the failure of legislatures to enact laws sufficient to curb handgun injuries is not adequate reason to engage the judicial forum in efforts to implement a broad policy change."

In addition, the suits 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?

The lawsuits would also establish 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 Illinois forbid the concealed carrying of firearms; they have double the murder rate and a 20 percent higher rape rate than states with liberal concealed carry laws.

And then there's the curious case of Philadelphia, where the idea for a lawsuit first arose. Pennsylvania liberalized its concealed carry law in 1989, but murder and other violent crime rates are still on the rise in Philadelphia because Philadelphia demanded an exemption from the liberalized concealed carry law. Citizens in other parts of Pennsylvania, who have the option of legally defending themselves with concealed firearms, have seen violent crime decrease - while it continues to increase in Philadelphia.

While New Orleans and Chicago have filed dangerous lawsuits, a different kind of lawsuit might actually make the public safer. The general public might join with crime victims in a class action suit against public officials, like Mayor Morial and Mayor Daley, whose actions make them less secure and increase crime rates in general. Guns don't increase crime, foolish policies do, and those that institute them should be held accountable. When private citizens take actions which threaten the public's health or welfare courts can enjoin the action and require compensation for those who have been harmed. Public officials should be held to the same standard, if not a higher one.

This Op Ed ran in the The Washington Times January 25, 1999.