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Jewish World Review August 13, 2001 / 24 Menachem-Av 5761

Don Feder

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Consumer Reports

Gun suits seek to end private ownership -- THE California Supreme Court deserves a 21-gun salute for its profound wisdom in throwing out a suit against gun-makers last week.

Based partially on a 1983 law, the court held manufacturers can't be sued for the criminal misuse of their merchandise.

"History will not be kind to the court's ruling,'' grumbled Dennis Henigan, attorney for the families of victims of a 1993 shooting. The court has granted "the gun industry special immunity from legal accountability that has no justification in law or public policy,'' the lawyer moaned as he watched his ambulance disappear.

But hope springs eternal in the bosoms of litigators. Similar suits are pending in at least 16 states. Most are by municipalities seeking to recover police and medical costs associated with gun violence.

Still, greed isn't the only motive here. Even with all the controls on the books -- the manufacture and sale of firearms may be our most regulated industry -- there are guns in half of American homes.

For some, this is intolerable. They have a mystical faith in the notion that fewer guns equal less crime, despite the fact that in the '90s the number of guns in circulation went up while the crime rate declined.

So, prohibitionists have decided to attack ownership at the source. Various suits seek to hold gun-makers liable for "defective and unreasonably dangerous'' products and sales techniques that "create a public nuisance.''

The California plaintiffs argued the defendant advertised its guns as useful for aggressive purposes. (Fancy that?) Moreover, an executive for defendant Navegar Inc. admitted that the company's product might fall into the hands of criminals.

And if the CEO of Ford Motor Co. was deposed, he'd have to admit his product might be acquired by an irresponsible driver who could operate it in such a way (at high speeds, while intoxicated) as to cause death and serious bodily injury. What exactly does this prove?

Cato Institute scholar Robert Levy notes there are 250 million guns in America. Each year, 500,000 are used in crimes. Assuming each of those offenses involves a different firearm, that still means 99.8 percent of guns are used lawfully. Some are even employed to thwart crimes, apprehend criminals and protect innocent life.

If Colt and Smith and Wesson are responsible for the ways their products are used, perhaps they should be paid a bonus every time one of their guns is used to accomplish good.

Guns perform exactly as advertised. You put a bullet in the chamber, pull the trigger and a potentially lethal projectile issues from the barrel. However -- and this should be axiomatic -- a gun does not have a will of its own. The instruments fashioned by the firearms industry can be used offensively or defensively, for recreation or homicide, depending on the owner's will.

Third-party liability is all the rage in a nation in headlong flight from personal responsibility and convinced that every ill can be cured by punitive damages.

In 1998, the four largest tobacco companies settled with 46 states for $206 billion, on the theory that Philip Morris et al. were the proximate cause of illnesses contracted by adults who voluntarily used their products over many years, notwithstanding widespread knowledge of the consequences of smoking.

There have been suits against firms that make violent videogames and record companies for music with homicidal lyrics. There's even talk of suing Hollywood for films that are said to incite juveniles.

But if the video manufacturer, record company, studio is to blame for criminal acts, doesn't that lessen the criminal's responsibility?

The goal of gun liability suits is to put manufacturers out of business. When his city sued, then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell gloated that gun-makers "don't have deep pockets'' and thus couldn't absorb high-dollar verdicts.

Politicians and ideologues behind this litigation are opposed to gun ownership. Since they can't convince individuals not to buy guns, or persuade legislators to enact controls that amount to prohibition, they hope to end private ownership by eliminating the supply.

This is undemocratic, coercive and utopian. In other words, worthy of the likes of Sarah Brady, Ted Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate