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Will Suing Gunmakers Endanger Lives?

printed in the Chicago Tribune: 11/17/98

By John R. Lott Jr., a fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. He is author of "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

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 costs.

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 poor.

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 self-defense.

The city also faces a credibility problem: Chicago police carry guns. This makes it harder to deny that being armed can produce substantial benefits.

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 has gone.

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 guns.

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 accidents.

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 crashes.

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 it does.

To Purchase: More Guns, Less Crime By: John Lott, Jr.

Hard Cover:Click Here

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All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Edmund Burke

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