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Suiting Down

This column was written by John Lott & Jack Soltysik.

Almost all products have illegitimate uses and undesirable consequences. In 2002, 45,380 people died in car accidents, 838 children drowned, 474 children died in house fires, and 130 children died in bicycle accidents. Luckily, local governments haven't started recouping medical costs or police salaries by suing car manufacturers, pool builders, makers of home heaters, or bike companies.

Many items, including cars and computers, are also used in the commission of crimes. But again, no one seriously proposes that these companies be held liable.

People understand that what makes a car useful for getting to work also makes it useful for escaping a crime. They also understand that the penalty should be on the person who uses the product for ill.

This logic is ignored when cities sue gun makers for costs incurred from improper firearm use, and the House of Representatives looks poised to end the practice today. Multibillionaire George Soros, via the Brady Campaign, has funded most of these suits. Last year the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act," to rein in these suits, was defeated when Democrats added amendments to extend the so-called assault-weapons ban.

Generally, with the exception of some short-term victories, suits against gun makers haven't had any more legally success than if similar suits had been brought against car companies. The legislation would limit civil suits to cases where the sellers or manufacturer has broken any law. In practice, this will make the selling of guns similar to other products. Car dealers are not sued simply because their cars are used in a crime, but they can be if they knowingly provide a car to facilitate a crime.

While gun-control advocates can dream about more such victories, the Brady Campaign had more practical goals: imposing large legal costs on gun makers. Even the largest gun companies make only a few million dollars in a good year. Those below the top ten make just a few thousand guns a year and are usually family operations.

The Bad and the Good

Obviously, bad things happen with guns. But the suits ignore that guns also prevent bad things by making it easier for victims to defend themselves. Unlike the tobacco suits, gun makers have powerful arguments about the benefits of gun ownership.

More than 450,000 crimes, including 10,800 murders, were committed with guns in 2002. But Americans also used guns defensively more than two million times that year, and more than 90 percent of the time merely brandishing the weapon was sufficient to stop an attack.

Police are important in reducing crime rates, but they virtually always arrive after a crime has been committed. When criminals confront people, resistance with a gun is by far the safest course of action. A 2004 survey found that 94 percent of 22,600 chiefs and sheriffs questioned thought that law-abiding citizens should be able to buy guns for self-defense.

John Lott's own research has shown increased gun-ownership rates are associated with lower crime rates. Poor people in the highest crime areas benefit the most from owning guns. Lawsuits against gun makers will raise the price of firearms, which will most severely reduce gun ownership among the law-abiding, much-victimized poor.

Advocates for these suits claim that the gun makers make their weapons attractive to criminals through low price, easy concealability, corrosion resistance, accurate firing and high firepower. Lightweight, concealable guns may help criminals, but they also have helped protect law-abiding citizens and lower crime rates in the 46 states that to varying degrees allow concealed handguns.

Women benefit most and also find it easier to use smaller, lightweight guns. Poor victims benefit more than wealthier ones from the ability to protect themselves simply because they are more likely to be victims.

Some suits have sought to hold gun makers liable because accidental deaths are "foreseeable" and not enough was done to make guns safe. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control shows that 26 children under 10 and 60 under 15 died from accidental gun deaths in 2002. Yet with 90 some million people owning more than 260 million guns, accidental deaths from guns are far less "foreseeable" than from many other products. Most gun owners must be very responsible or such gun accidents would be much more frequent.

Data collected from doing a Nexis search on all accidental gun shot cases for children under age ten show that accidental shooters overwhelmingly are adults with long histories of arrests for violent crimes, alcoholism, suspended or revoked driver's licenses, and involvement in car crashes. Meanwhile, the annual number of accidental gun deaths involving children under ten — most of these being cases where someone older shoots the child — is consistently a single digit number. It is a kind of media archetype story to report on "naturally curious" children shooting themselves or other children — though in the five years from 1997 to 2001 the entire United States averaged only ten cases a year where a child under ten accidentally shot himself or another child.

In contrast, in 2001 bicycles were much more likely to result in accidental deaths than guns. Ninety-three children under the age of ten drowned accidentally in bathtubs.

And, Yet, Still...

Yet, despite all this the vote in the House might depend on requirements on a Senate provision that required gunlocks to be included with any guns sold. As mentioned, the number of accidental gun deaths are many fewer than most suspect, but the real problem is that convincing people to lock up guns actually leads to more deaths. When people lock up their guns, they are less able to defend themselves from criminal attacks and criminals become more emboldened to attack people in their homes. Providing gunlocks with guns is just one additional way to exaggerate in people's minds the risk of owning guns in the home. Including this provision may be the political price to pass the legislation, but it distracts from the overall benefits of the bill.

Attempts to have the court system ignore a product's benefits to society are bad enough. Even worse is the cynical attempt to file bogus lawsuits simply to impose massive legal costs to eventually try bankrupting legitimate companies.

Passing the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" today would still allow suits but would put gun makers on the same legal footing as other American manufacturers.

John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of More Guns, Less Crime and The Bias Against Guns. Soltysik was an AEI summer intern and is currently a student at the University of Missouri.
By John Lott & Jack Soltysik. Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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