Suing Gun Manufacturers: Hazardous to Our Health

Policy Reports | Crime | Government | Regulations

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

Bad Public Policy: Disarming Citizens

The Lott study on the impact of concealed carry laws confirms something policy analysts have long suspected: the increased risk or cost associated with crime due to liberalized gun laws discourages some violent criminals from committing further crimes. Other offenders either shift their criminal activities to areas where citizens are known to be less able to effectively defend themselves or shift from crimes of force such as armed robbery to crimes of stealth such as burglary.

The ultimate result of successful lawsuits against gun manufacturers would be to reduce access to firearms, thus making citizens less safe. Public safety would be impaired in less direct ways as well.99 In Philadelphia, Mayor Rendell's staff calculated that the cost of filing the city's lawsuit would have exceeded $1 million.100 There is no reason to think that Chicago's lawsuit will cost less - and under current law and judicial holdings it is unlikely to succeed, meaning public money and time that could have gone toward law enforcement will be wasted.

"Public opinion polls show that only 16 percent of Americans favor banning handguns and fewer than 5 percent favor banning rifles."

It also is unlikely that the gun industry would cease to produce and sell firearms, even if it were to lose in the courts. The general public supports gun use, according to public opinion polls that show only 16 percent of Americans favor banning handguns and fewer than 5 percent favor banning rifles.101

Instead, it is likely that the price of firearms would increase to cover expanded liability insurance coverage, sales monitoring programs and personalized gun safety technologies.102 Another possible outcome is that smaller gun manufacturers or those with slim profit margins would go bankrupt while more successful firms would survive, shifting from the civilian to the police and military gun markets.103 This also would drive up the cost of firearms to civilians.

Relatively affluent Americans would still be able to purchase guns for self-defense and sport, while the urban poor (typically minorities), who already suffer the most from criminal depredation, would not. The poor experience nearly twice as much violent crime as do others.

  • Inner-city residents are approximately 33 percent more likely to suffer a violent crime than suburban residents and 40 percent more likely than rural residents.
  • Blacks, who make up a disproportionate share of the population of large urban areas, are three times as likely as whites to be robbed and twice as likely to suffer aggravated assault, and they make up half of all murder victims although they represent only 12.6 percent of the population.104

Thus higher gun prices would disarm precisely those individuals who are most likely to face violent crime and who would most benefit from easier access to guns and widespread gun ownership.105

If gun makers either went bankrupt or virtually ceased civilian production, the value of guns would increase and the black market in firearms would grow. The law allows private citizens to sell some or all of their guns without regulation as long as theirs is not a regular business enterprise. As gun values rise, private sales of firearms would likely increase, with some people amassing entire arsenals "off the books." In addition, the higher prices that guns would fetch on the black market would make gun thefts more profitable and thus more likely. Since retail firearms sales to private citizens currently subsidize the cost of guns to local police, federal agents and the military, the price of guns to law enforcement and military personnel would increase.

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