Every product has illegitimate uses and undesirable
consequences. In 1996 in the U.S., car accidents killed 43,000
people and injured another 3.4 million; 950 children under the
age of 15 drowned in pools and while boating; 500 children died
in bicycle accidents, and more than 1,000 children died from residential
fires. No one is yet proposing that state or city governments
should recoup medical costs or police salaries by suing automobile
or bicycle companies, pool builders or makers of home heaters.
Such suits make as little sense as pool builders suing the government
to recoup the health benefits from exercise.
But suing manufacturers for any costs cities incur
from gun injuries and deaths is exactly the theory behind the
lawsuits by Chicago and New Orleans against gun makers. Gun control
groups, which are helping organize the litigation, claim that
as many as 60 cities will eventually sue. With so many simultaneous
suits, the goal is not to win these weak cases in court but to
bankrupt legitimate small companies through massive legal costs.
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. With fewer than 1% of all guns ever
used in crimes or causing death or injury, many other products
have much higher probabilities of causing harm. Unlike the tobacco
suits, gun makers have powerful arguments about the benefits of
More than 450,000 crimes, including 10,744 murders,
are committed with guns each year. But Americans also use guns
defensively about 2.5 million times a year, and 98% of the time
merely brandishing the weapon is 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. Guns help offset the strength differential
between male criminals and female victims. The chances of serious
injury from an attack are 2.5 times greater for women offering
no resistance than for those resisting with guns.
My own research has found that 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
A 1996 survey by the National Assn. of Chiefs of
Police found that 93% of 15,000 chiefs and sheriffs questioned
thought that law-abiding citizens should be able to buy guns for
self-defense. If mayors really believe that guns produce no benefits,
there is one simple way they can demonstrate this: Disarm their
bodyguards. It is hypocritical for mayors to demand that poor
people live in high crime areas without being able to own guns,
while the mayors would never enter these areas without armed guards.
Chicago claims that the gun makers made their weapons
attractive to gang members 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 43 states
that allow concealed handguns. Women benefit most and also find
it easier to use smaller, lightweight guns.
The New Orleans suit seeks to hold gun makers liable
because accidental deaths are "foreseeable" and not
enough was done to make guns safe. It is particularly concerned
with accidental deaths involving children and cites three cases
in New Orleans since 1992. Nationally, 30 children under 5 and
200 under 15 died from accidental gun deaths in 1996. Yet with
80 million people owning 200 million to 240 million guns, accidental
deaths from guns are far less "foreseeable" than from
many other products. Gun owners must be very responsible, or such
gun accidents would be much more frequent.
Allowing the court system to ignore a product's benefits
to society is bad enough. Yet even worse is the cynical attempt
to file bogus lawsuits and use taxpayers' dollars to impose massive
legal costs that render it infeasible for defendants to defend
themselves. - - -
John R. Lott Jr., a Law and Economics Fellow at the
University of Chicago School of Law, Is the Author of "More
Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws"
(University of Chicago Press, 1998)