Since October 1998, 33 cities and the state of New York have brought lawsuits against gun makers and retailers seeking to hold the companies responsible for the misuse of their products. More than 35 major private suits have also been filed since 1998. Funded with millions of dollars from George Soros (search), the Brady Campaign (search) (and its predecessor Handgun Control) has paid for much of the legal costs behind these suits.
The goal has not been to win these legally weak cases but rather, with so many simultaneous suits, to bankrupt these companies through massive legal costs. Unfortunately, despite most of the city suits having been knocked out on pretrial motions, this strategy has had some success. Litigation fears helped discourage venerable companies such as Colt from continuing to produce handguns, and Kmart, along with other retailers, have stopped selling handgun ammunition.
This week, the Senate is poised to pass legislation that will rein in many of those lawsuits against gun makers and retailers, such as those that claim that gun makers should “know and foresee” that crimes will be committed with the guns they sell. The new legislation will of course not end lawsuits against defective products that cause harm or injury. Similarly, a company will still face civil liability in addition to criminal penalties if it has violated state or federal law or sold a gun knowing that it would be used to commit a crime. Even prominent Democrats such as Sen. Diane Feinstein concedes that the bill is going to pass.
Yet, amendments to extend the ban on some semi-automatic guns and to further regulate gun shows face close votes. These amendments threaten to kill the bill in conference committee, yet some senators, including Tom Daschle, are simultaneously promising to vote for the bill but also promising gun control groups that they are "solid" for the gun show and assault weapons amendments.
A recent poll conducted by the Roper Center asked Americans whether "companies that make guns should be held financially liable if judges or juries find that their products were used to commit a crime." Seventy-eight percent disagreed. With such grassroots support, 10 Democratic senators from southern and western states have joined 45 Republican senators in sponsoring the current legislation. But can such senators as Tom Daschle and Harry Reid-- who face re-election this year--really convince voters that they want to stop these lawsuits while, at the same time, they vote for additional gun control amendments that jeopardize the final passage of the bill?
Renewing the "Assault Weapons" Ban
Seven states now ban certain types of semi-automatic guns (search), and there has been a federal ban on certain semi-automatic guns since 1994;Gun control advocates ominously predict that eliminating the ban will result in a surge in police killings or, as Sen. Carl Levin claims, a rise in gun crimes .
Yet, despite the heated rhetoric, there is not a single academic study showing that these bans have reduced violent crime. Even research funded by the Justice Department under the Clinton administration concluded merely that the ban's "impact on gun violence has been uncertain."
The 1994 federal assault weapons ban applied to semi-automatics that fire one bullet per pull of the trigger. Rebuilding semi-automatic weapons into machine guns is very difficult, as completely different firing mechanisms are used. Terms such "military-style" or "assault weapon" describe cosmetic features of the gun, not the way the gun fires bullets.
Ironically, notorious "assault weapons," such as the 223-caliber Bushmaster rifle used in the District of Columbia area sniper killings (search), are not allowed in most states for hunting deer or larger animals because it is such a low-powered rifle, it will too frequently wound rather than kill the deer.
The ban arbitrarily outlaws some guns based upon brand name or cosmetic features-- such as whether a rifle could have a bayonet mount, a pistol grip, a folding stock or a threaded muzzle. Not only could someone buy another not-banned semi-automatic gun that fired the same bullets, at the same rapidity and with the same damage, but even the banned guns can be sold under a different name or after, say, the bayonet mount was removed.
Proponents for keeping the semi-automatic "assault" gun ban (search) argue that 10 of the 50 police officers shot to death annually over the four years from 1998 to 2001 were killed by these guns. But the Violence Policy Center, which put these numbers together, never examined whether the guns used to kill police possessed two or more of the features defining them as "assault weapons." Rather, the guns were counted as assault weapons if it was possible that they had at least two of the banned features.
The stakes for this amendment represent much more than a legislative battle for gun control advocates. Defeat would put their very credibility at risk if it becomes obvious a year from now that their horror stories have not come true.
Gun Show Regulations
Despite the term "gun show loophole," (search) there are no special exemptions for buying a gun at a gun show. Dealers must perform the same background checks as in a store. What gun control groups refer to is the non-regulated private transfers of guns. Eighteen states regulate the private transfers of handguns, with some having regulations going back more than several decades. However, just as with the semi-automatic gun bans, there is not a single academic study showing that these regulations reduce any type of violent crime.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics under Clinton conducted a survey of 18,000 state prison inmates in 1997 -- the largest survey of inmates ever conducted. Less than one percent of inmates (0.7 percent) who had a gun obtained it from a gun show. The vast majority of criminals—40 percent—say they got their guns either from friends or family, and 39 percent from the street or other illegal sources.
Burdening these needed legal reforms with regulations that cause only other problems accomplishes only one goal: the legislation will be defeated and the lawsuits seeking to eliminate guns will proceed.
John Lott Jr., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).