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Published Tuesday, April 26, 2005, in Investors' Business Daily, p. A13

Time to Level Playing Field for Gun Makers

By John R. Lott, Jr.*

Every product has illegitimate uses and undesirable consequences, but even lawsuits have had their limits. In 2002 in the U.S., car accidents killed 45,380 people and injured another 3 million, 838 children under the age of 15 drowned, 474 children died from residential fires, and 130 children died in bicycle accidents.

Fortunately, local governments havenít started recouping medical costs or police salaries by suing auto or bicycle companies, pool builders or makers of home heaters.

All sorts of products, including cars and computers, are also used in the commission of crimes. But again, no one yet seriously proposes that these companies be sued for the losses from these crimes.

People understand what makes a car useful for everyday life also makes it useful to escape a crime and that you can't hold a car company liable for a product thatís working exactly as it should. They understand that the penalty should be on the person who uses the product improperly.

Yet suing manufacturers for costs cities incur from gun injuries and deaths is exactly the theory behind government lawsuits by cities against gun makers. George Soros, via the Brady Campaign, has funded most of these suits.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee marked up their version of a bill to limit these suits, and the Senate will finally decide within the next couple of weeks whether these suits will continue. Last year the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" to rein in these suits was defeated when Democrats added amendments to extend the so-called assault weapons ban.

Generally, suits against gun makers haven't had any more legal success than if similar suits had been brought against car companies. There have been some short term victories such as a decision last week by the D.C. Court of Appeals that will let the city sue makers of so-called "assault weapons" used in crime.

But while gun control advocates can dream about more such victories, the Brady Campaign had more practical goals: imposing large legal costs on gun makers. Even the largest gun companies make only a few million dollars in a good year. Those below the top 10 make just a few thousand guns a year and are usually family operations.

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. Unlike the tobacco suits, gun makers have powerful arguments about the benefits of gun ownership.

More than 450,000 crimes, including 10,800 murders, were committed with guns in 2002. But Americans also used guns defensively more than 2 million times that year, and more than 90 percent of the time merely brandishing the weapon was 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. A 2004 survey found that 94% of 22,600 chiefs and sheriffs questioned thought that law-abiding citizens should be able to buy guns for self-defense.

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 poor.

Advocates for these suits claim that the gun makers make their weapons attractive to criminals 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 46 states that to varying degrees allow concealed handguns.

Women benefit most and also find it easier to use smaller, lightweight guns. Poor victims benefit more than wealthier ones from the ability to protect themselves simply because they are more likely to be victims.

Some suits seek to hold gun makers liable because accidental deaths are "foreseeable" and not enough was done to make guns safe. Nationally, 31 children under 10 and 71 under 15 died from accidental gun deaths in 2001. Yet with 90 some million people owning more than 260 million guns, accidental deaths from guns are far less "foreseeable" than from many other products. Most gun owners must be very responsible or such gun accidents would be much more frequent.

Attempts to have the court system ignore a product's benefits to society are bad enough. Even worse is the cynical attempt to file bogus lawsuits simply to impose massive legal costs and eventually try bankrupting legitimate companies.

Passing the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" this month would still allow suits but would put gun makers on the same legal footing as other American manufacturers.

*Lott is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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