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Gun Maker Lawsuits Off Target

as printed in the Wall Street Journal, 3/2/99, p. A18

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).

Having won a landmark jury verdict in Brooklyn, plaintiffs' lawyers are lining up to take more shots at the gun industry. They claim that gun makers are negligently selling weapons that wind up being used in crimes and accidental deaths. And just as in the tobacco cases, government officials are jumping at the chance to collect some revenues by targeting an unpopular industry. Five cities have joined ensuing gun makers, and others threaten to do so. Chicago went so far as to conduct undercover sting operations supposedly showing that retailers recklessly market their guns directly to undercover cops posing as gang members.

The Clinton administration is also doing its part for its friends in the plaintiffs' bar. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms recently released a report asserting that, more often than not, the guns used in crimes are purchased, not stolen. This finding received uncritical coverage on all the networks and newspapers. President Clinton also constantly asserts that gun shows serve as a source of guns to criminals, misleading people into believing that licensed firearms dealers can somehow sell guns at such shows without conducting personal background checks.

A little perspective is needed here. Americans own about 240 million guns. Some 450,000 gun crimes were committed in 1996. Even in the unlikely case that the average criminal uses the same gun just twice, only 0.09% of all guns are used for criminal purposes in any given year.

The administration report claims that "straw" purchases-in which guns are bought with the intent of reselling them to criminals--may account for between a third and half of the guns used to commit crimes, but its evidence is very indirect. Instead of actually tracing a gun's history, the administration study assumed that guns that are less than three years old are being transferred by straw purchases. The report acknowledges that many of the guns that find their way into crime after three years might have been stolen. Even so, let's say the administration's most extreme claims are true. If criminals on average use one gun to commit two crimes, only about 0.5% of recently sold guns have made it into illegal use.

The report never even traces more than 43% of the guns recovered in crimes-- and, as the report acknowledges, these untraced guns are much more likely to be stolen. All the report's assumptions were consistently made to exaggerate the rate at which straw purchases are made.

Is this maximum estimate of a 0.5% of sales evidence of recklessness? Is the standard that no guns sold by retailers will ever find their way into criminal activity?

The plaintiffs' solution to this supposed oversupply of guns is even more remarkable. Without recognizing the obvious antitrust violations, they expect gun companies simply to reduce sales. How are they supposed to coordinate this industry wide output reduction and simultaneously prevent the resulting higher prices from encouraging the entry of new competitors? And even if this output restriction could be accomplished legally, does anyone really believe that a reduction in sales would reduce only sales to criminals?

Given that citizens use guns to prevent crimes about five times more frequently than crimes are committed with guns, equal percentage reductions in gun ownership by good guys and bad guys will lead to more crime. Higher prices will most hurt those who most need guns for protection. Minorities who live in poor urban areas face the greatest risks from crime. They will be among the first squeezed out by higher prices.

Lawsuits seek to bypass the legislative process. If politicians are determined to reduce the use of a product, taxes or regulations accomplish that end more effectively. If "too many" guns are being sold as these suits claim, gun sales could be taxed even more heavily. But Congress and state legislatures have decided against more controls. The plaintiffs now want the courts to punish law-abiding manufacturers for past sales that complied with the law.

So what about the city of Chicago's evidence of gun shops selling to under- cover police officers dressed in gang colors or using gang language? These were unusual sting operations, in which the police somehow failed to record any of the conversations and have yet to file criminal complaints. They are also a civil libertarians' nightmare (although the politically-correct ACLU seems strangely silent about this). The gun dealers faced a no-win situation. These supposed gang members met all the state requirements by passing criminal background checks and signing the required forms promising to obey state and local laws. Had the retailers not sold firearms to black undercover officers posing as gang members, they surely would have faced discrimination lawsuits.

The Clinton administration seems unchastened by repeatedly having been caught falsely reporting data on the Brady law's effectiveness. With its new report, the administration is also shooting blanks.

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

Hard Cover:Click Here

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The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion. Edmund Burke (1784).

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