January 29, 1999

January 29, 1999 | Commentary on Crime

Smoking Gun

If someone commits a crime with a firearm, most people would agree you hold the individual accountable. But there's a disturbing movement afoot to hold gun manufacturers responsible for the acts of criminals.

In October, the city of New Orleans filed a lawsuit against leading gun companies, arguing that they should be held financially liable for the cost of handgun violence. Since then, Chicago has filed a similar lawsuit. And the mayor of Philadelphia has proposed that 100 or more cities file similar lawsuits simultaneously later this year-just to let everyone know how serious they are.

What's driving these lawsuits? Crime may be part of it, but a bigger motive is the greed of the product-liability bar. That's not Joe's Bar; I'm talking about trial lawyers.

The gun lawsuits mirror those brought against the tobacco companies (which, judging by the list of law firms involved, must have included virtually every member of the bar in the United States). Once the cigarette makers were forced to pay $246 billion to settle claims, it was only a matter of time before the trial lawyers started looking for other targets.

No one likes to see violence of any kind, but ganging up on the gun makers isn't going to help. Background checks are supposed to keep criminals from getting guns. They don't, prompting many law-abiding citizens to buy guns to protect their families. If the trial lawyers succeed in bankrupting U.S. gun manufacturers or significantly driving up the cost of handguns, law-abiding citizens will have trouble getting guns, but criminals will still be able to buy them on the black market.

What the supporters of these lawsuits forget is that a gun is an inanimate object. By itself it poses no threat to society. If we're going to hold gun makers responsible for violence perpetrated with what is, in essence, a hunk of metal, should we also blame hit-and-run accidents on GM, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler? This view erases the human element-the recognition that violence is committed by people.

John Coale, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who participated in the tobacco lawsuits, recently said this to a newspaper reporter: "People kept saying that we would go after the alcohol and fast-food industries next. But we'd never do that. We enjoy our liquor and meat too much." That's not funny. In a free society, our right to buy a legal product should not depend on a lawyer's whim. And guns, whether the lawyers like it or not, are still legal.

Of course, that too could change if the backers of the gun lawsuits get their way. The lawyers may or may not care about outlawing guns; it's my guess that most of them are involved in the lawsuits primarily because of the potential to make money. But behind the lawyers stand the gun-control advocates, who see the lawsuits as a way to help ban guns altogether. As The Washington Post explained, gun-control groups are backing these lawsuits as part of a broader legal strategy that "not only aims at winning money settlements but also [at] imposing new regulations on the sale and manufacture of firearms."

The only good news is that the re-energized National Rifle Association, which until now has been a bystander to this dispute, has announced it will fight the gun lawsuits. One idea the NRA has is to push for laws that would restrict the fees lawyers can receive from such lawsuits. Once the lawyers realize there's no easy money to be made from suing gun makers, they'll likely abandon the cause.

If gun-control advocates want to regulate gun makers out of existence, they should not do it in the courts. They should make their argument for a gun-free society on its merits-which, if history is any guide, is an argument they will lose.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office