Only 16 percent of Americans favor banning handguns and only a
fraction of those people favor banning rifles. Yet, if Mayor Richard
Daley has his way the opinions of the vast majority will not matter.
The lawsuits that U.S. city mayors are threatening against gunmakers
are using the courts to end run the legislative process and the
legal system. The goal is not to win these weak cases in court
but to simply bankrupt legitimate companies through massive legal
Governments have the option of regulating or taxing a product
with a perceived problem. For example, if "too many"
guns were being sold, as Daley claims, gun sales could have been
taxed even more heavily.
But the Illinois legislature decided against more controls. Daley
now wants the courts to punish law-abiding manufacturers for past
sales that complied with Illinois law.
According to the lawsuit, undercover police officers posing as
gang members were able to illegally purchase weapons. If that's
so, criminal penalties already exist. But that's not what this
lawsuit is about. It's about making manufacturers pay large awards
to the city for any harm produced by guns.
Obviously bad things happen with guns and guns do make it easier
for bad things to happen. But simply claiming that murders are
committed with guns will not be enough for Daley to win. The suit
completely ignores that guns also prevent bad things from happening.
Unlike the tobacco suits, gunmakers have powerful arguments about
the benefits of gun ownership.
Criminals tend to attack victims they perceive as weak and guns
serve as an important deterrent against crime.
Americans use guns defensively more than 2 million times a year
and 98 percent of the time merely brandishing the weapon is sufficient
to stop an attack.
Resistance with a gun also is the safest course of action when
confronted by a criminal. For example, the chances of serious
injury from an attack are 2.5 times greater for women offering
no resistance than for those resisting with a gun. And guns help
bridge the strength differential between male criminals and their
female victims, putting women on a more equal footing with men
in terms of personal safety.
In my own recent research, I found that higher gun ownership rates
are associated with lower crime rates. Further, poor people in
the highest-crime areas benefit the most from gun ownership. Lawsuits
against gunmakers will raise the price of firearms, which will
most severely reduce gun ownership among the law-abiding, much-victimized
Daley's claims also are at odds with the wisdom of the very people
whose job it is to keep the streets safe. The police cannot feasibly
protect everybody all the time. Perhaps this is why police officers
are sympathetic to law-abiding citizens owning guns. A 1996 survey
of 15,000 chiefs of police and sheriffs conducted by the National
Association of Chiefs of Police found that 93 percent of them
thought law-abiding citizens should be able to purchase guns for
The city also faces a credibility problem: Chicago police carry
guns. This makes it harder to deny that being armed can produce
However, if Daley really believes that guns produce no benefits,
there is one simple way he can demonstrate this: Disarm all his
bodyguards. It is more than a bit hypocritical for Daley to demand
that poor people live in high-crime areas without being able to
own a gun, while he would never himself enter these areas without
his armed guards.
Chicago's lawsuit also accuses 22 gunmakers of specifically designing
guns to appeal to gang members. Among the offending characteristics
listed are low price, easy concealability (small size and light
weight), corrosion resistance, accurate firing and high firepower.
The fact that an industry is being sued for making high-quality,
affordable products shows how far the liability litigation madness
Again, only the costs of a gun's design are mentioned. Lightweight,
concealable guns may help criminals, but they also help protect
law-abiding citizens in the 43 states that allow concealed handguns.
States issuing the most "carry permits" have had the
largest drops in violent crime. Women benefit much more than men
do from owning a gun and also find it easier to use smaller, lightweight
Criminals may value guns with greater accuracy and firepower,
but so do potential victims who want to stop an attacker. Daley
may claim that a gun salesman is pitching ammunition specifically
to gang members when the salesman claims that a certain type won't
"go through the target and hit a little girl." But homeowners
trying to protect their families from attackers have the same
concerns. The state government has already set down detailed rules
for restricting gun sales to law-abiding citizens: criminal background
checks as well as state-issued firearm owner identification cards.
The suit also raises civil liberties nightmares. The gun dealers
were faced with a no-win situation from the undercover stings.
Had they not sold firearms to undercover minority police posing
as gang members, they could have faced discrimination lawsuits.
Mayor Daley says his suit is no different than holding bars liable
for serving too many drinks to people who later get into automobile
Yet these cases deal exclusively with retailers, not manufacturers.
Daley's lawsuit, if successful, would create vast new precedents.
Perhaps the next prey for local governments and trial lawyers
will be automobile companies. After all, cities bear some health-care
costs from car accidents and have to pay police to deal with the
The city's lawsuit represents a dangerous combination of counting
costs but not benefits in legal arguments and of using the courts
to make public policy. Every product has illegitimate uses. Once
legitimate products get assailed because they have a well-known
downside, it's hard to see where the process stops. We must not
lose sight of the ultimate question: Does allowing citizens to
own guns on net save lives? The evidence strongly indicates that