Firearms kill nearly twice as many Americans as all other household and recreational products combined. Yet, despite public support for federal safety regulations, firearms and ammunition are the last unregulated consumer products. A poll released last month by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that 74 percent of those surveyed favor government safety regulation of guns.
Until federal oversight of gun manufacturers becomes a reality, however, the tort system is the only mechanism to hold the firearms industry accountable when its products kill or injure innocent consumers.
Recently, some of the greatest gains in efforts to reduce firearm-related deaths and injuries have occurred, not through legislation but litigation. Courts have helped deter the manufacture, sale, and use of unsafe firearms and have issued landmark rulings in cases involving assault-weapon manufacturers, gun-show promoters, and firearm retailers.
The tort system helps reduce firearms violence in two ways. First, it addresses the problem of unintentional injuries associated with defective firearms and ammunition. Second, it holds accountable dealers and manufacturers who knowingly market their products to high-risk individuals such as criminals and minors.
If the gun industry succeeds in limiting its civil liability for death and injury caused by its products, it will be virtually free of safety regulation. It's not surprising, then, that the firearms industry is lobbying Congress for limits on consumer lawsuits. The American Shooting Sports Council (ASSC) is one of the gun industry's leading trade associations and is an active member of the American Tort Reform Association, a coalition of large corporations and insurance companies.
ASSC cares so much about passing restrictions on civil liability that it counted "support of the federal product liability reform legislation" in the 104th Congress as a key vote when it rated congressional candidates seeking reelection in 1996. A vote in favor of federal tort reform legislation carried the same pro-gun weight with the ASSC as a vote to repeal the assault-weapons ban.
Likewise, the National Rifle Association has put restricting the rights of consumers in product liability lawsuits at the top of its pro-gun agenda. Despite the organization's claims that it represents "gun consumers," it has chosen to side with the firearms industry and against the interests of the many hunters and shooters who are killed or injured each year by defective firearms. In July 1995, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre described the NRA's efforts on tort reform to "Guns and Ammo" magazine. He said, "We are part of the coalition that is pursuing [tort reform] legislation.... The industry is certainly carrying the brunt of the issue, but we're lending support."
The firearms industry already enjoys a special exemption from safety regulation. Congress should not, in addition, take away consumers' rights to hold gun manufacturers accountable when their defective products cause death or injury.
* Kristen Rand is director of federal policy at the Violence Policy Center in Washington.