HUD Hypocracy

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Trial lawyers, anti-gun activists, mayors and the Clinton Administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development 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."

These lawsuits are hypocritical, unconstitutional and threaten public safety.

Commentators have noted the hypocricy of the cities' suits since some of cities involved are in the gun business - trading in their used police firearms for resale in exchange for new guns. And even the mayors admit that it is criminal gun use, not guns per se, which is responsible for their cities' ills. Otherwise, why else would they continue to arm their police with firearms?

What about the HUD suit? Federal prosecutions for firearms crimes have fallen 44 percent and sentence lengths for firearm violations have dropped 20 percent under the Clinton justice department since 1992. In addition, the administration has supported lawsuits by the federal Legal Services Corporation to stop public housing authorities from evicting criminals. So, the same administration that wants to sue gunmakers for the cost of gun violence defends the right of criminals to live in public housing and refuses to prosecute them when they commit gun crimes - if that's not hypocrisy, I don't know what is.

The lawsuits threaten our constitutional separation of powers. Article I, Section Eight of the Constitution charges Congress alone with regulating interstate commerce. It's a delicate balancing act to give a free people access to certain products while maximizing public safety. But Congress has proven up to the task of making those tough calls, having passed laws which limit and even prohibit access to products like tobacco, guns and prescription drugs.

Activists, trial lawyers, mayors and the Clinton administration, however, have given up on the Constitution. Unable to persuade legislators that removing guns from the hands of law abiding citizens will reduce crime, they are attempting to use the courts to impose their views on a skeptical public.

In addition, thousands of people die or are injured annually 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. Many companies will 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. 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.

And studies show that 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 polls show that a majority of Amercians favor stricter gun laws, this number has fallen in recent years. A June 1999 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that only 62 percent of Americans favored stricter gun laws, compared to 78 percent 1990. More to the point, a Tarrance Group poll found that only 5 percent of the public feel that manufacturers should be held responsible when firearms are misused.

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.