Suing Gun Manufacturers: Hazardous to Our Health

Policy Reports | Crime | Government | Regulations

No. 223
Monday, March 01, 1999
by H. Sterling Burnett


1In early 1998, Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell proposed that local officials sue gun manufacturers to recover costs related to firearms violence in their cities.2 Although Rendell later put his plans for a lawsuit on hold, Mayor Marc Morial of New Orleans and Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago have filed suits.3 Other cities have since filed and still more seem likely to.4 In addition, two similar lawsuits have been filed on behalf of private citizens. In one case, which resulted in a mixed verdict [discussed in Appendix II], attorney Elisa Barnes sued gun manufacturers on behalf of six families who had lost loved ones to criminal gun use and one man injured by gunfire.5 And on June 9, 1998, the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School filed suit on behalf of three Chicago families, each of which had lost young family members in gang-related shootings.6 The second suit is now moving through the courts.

"Suits against the gun industry contend (1) guns are a public nuisance and (2) manufacturers flood cities with guns."

The Chicago suit and the two private suits contend that (1) guns are a public nuisance and (2) gun manufacturers knowingly flood cities with more guns than they expect to sell to law-abiding citizens, thus aiding and abetting criminals in obtaining firearms. [The New Orleans lawsuit, which takes a different tack, is examined in Appendix I.] The mayors argue that the firearms industry should reimburse their cities for the public health and safety costs associated with treating and preventing firearms injuries. The two private suits seek compensation from the firearms industry for the plaintiffs' suffering plus punitive damages to discourage the industry from allowing its guns to end up on the black market.

The demand that the gun industry pay the costs associated with gun violence parallels the demands in suits brought against the tobacco industry. However, there is convincing evidence that the benefits to society from the use of guns in self-defense and crime prevention outweigh the costs.

The lawsuits discussed in this study all seek redress from the firearms industry for the cost of criminal violence to the plaintiffs (i.e., in the private suit the plaintiffs are individuals who have suffered from criminal gun violence and in the cities' suits the plaintiffs are seeking recompense for the medical and policing costs related to criminal gun use). There are costs associated with gun use other than those related to criminal activities, however. For instance, in 1995 1,225 people died as a result of fatal firearm accidents.7 In addition, approximately 30,000 people commit suicide in the U.S. each year and guns are used in approximately half of these deaths.8 On the benefit side, more than 20 million Americans participate in various shooting sports each year, accounting for more than $30 billion in economic activity.9 A full accounting of the relative costs and benefits of firearms to society would include all of these factors as well as others. However, since the lawsuits at issue limit their claims for redress to the costs associated with instances of criminal gun misuse, this study limits its inquiry to the costs associated with criminal gun violence and the benefits associated with firearms used in defense against criminal activities.10

After outlining the cases brought against the firearms industry, this study analyzes how guns prevent crime and compares the societal costs and benefits. It also examines the unintended ill effects on law and public safety of the restrictions on the firearms industry sought by the plaintiffs.

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