Unintended Consequences: The fruits of hysterical antigun lawsuits.

By Dave Kopel

National Review Online. March 6, 2002 9:50 a.m. More by Kopel on lawsuits against firearms manufacturers.

On Saturday, the voters of New Orleans elected businessman Ray Nagin to be their next mayor. Nagin will take office on May 6, succeeding outgoing Mayor Marc H. Morial. Nagin's platform on crime said absolutely nothing about promoting more gun control — quite a contrast from Mayor Morial, who was the first mayor in the United States to sue American gun manufacturers. But rather than reviling Mayor Morial, Second Amendment supporters should be thanking him for helping to transform the American gun industry — although the transformations are precisely the opposite of those that Morial and his gun-prohibition allies hoped to achieve.

Last month, the firearms industry held its annual trade show, the Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trades Show (SHOT Show), in Las Vegas. The business news from the SHOT Show is very bad news for gun prohibitionists, but even worse, from the prohibition viewpoint, is the new attitude of the American firearms industry, an attitude for which New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial deserves as much credit as anyone else.

On the business side, while attendance has been sharply down at many trade shows (such as the Outdoor Retailer Show), the SHOT Show enjoyed outstanding attendance, only a few hundred people short of its all-time record. Thirty-one thousand people participated in the show — all the more impressive when one considers that show is for the trade only, and closed to consumers and the general public.

On the product side, laser sights for firearms are becoming inexpensive and increasingly common. A laser sight puts a red dot on light on the target. If the target is a human criminal, the red dot sometimes provokes a very prompt surrender; if not, the dot makes it much easier for the firearms user to hit the target, even at night, under the stressful conditions of a home invasion. The gun-prohibition groups, which morally oppose the use of firearms for self-defense by people who are not government employees, find the proliferation of laser sights very distressing.

Back in the 1980s, a new company called Glock was the first to incorporate plastic polymers in its firearms. Now, plastics have spread throughout the industry. For example, Springfield Armory introduced is "X-treme Duty" (XD) pistol, which lives up to its name. The gun is light, and hence especially suitable for defensive carrying, but it is also extremely rugged. It can handle conditions of abuse — like being immersed in mud, or run over by a truck — which would prevent most pistols from firing. The increased durability of these pistols means that, even if handgun manufacture were prohibited one day, today's firearms could literally be usable hundreds of years from now.

Spurred by the 1994 Clinton-Feinstein ban on new magazines holding more than 10 rounds, and by the spread of "shall issue" handgun-carry licensing laws, manufacturers are continuing to invent new firearms which are smaller and smaller, yet powerful enough for self-defense. For example, the new North American Arms "Guardian" pistol carries six rounds of .380 ACP ammunition; yet the pistol is less than five inches long and less than an inch wide. Thank you Senator Feinstein!

Because of the terrorist attacks, interest has surged in frangible ammunition, which is available from a variety of manufacturers. Frangible ammunition uses pre-fragmented bullets which shatter into many small pieces upon impact, thus eliminating the risk that a bullet might over-penetrate its target and hit an innocent bystander.

Frangible ammo is useful not only on airplanes, but in any crowded venue, such a courtroom, casino, sporting event, or airport. In addition, frangible ammunition is safer for target shooting (no risk of ricochet) and sometimes superior environmentally (since the bullets are not made of lead). Better ammunition, not more gun laws, turns out to be the firearms-related results of the terrorist attacks.

In the early 1990s, the gun-prohibition groups hoped to make guns seem like cigarettes — "dirty, dangerous, and banned," as one prohibitionist put it. But instead, firearms are becoming even more mainstream, thanks in part to leadership from the gun industry's trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Hunting shows are already well-established on cable channels, and now, other shooting sports are getting television coverage, such as the annual Great Outdoor Games in Lake Placid, which are featured on ESPN during the summer.

The nation's lieutenant governors have a lot of time on their hands, and the NSSF has given them something constructive to do, making them the leaders in the NSSF's Project HomeSafe to distribute free trigger locks nationwide.

Of course the most direct parallel between firearms and cigarettes was supposed to be that the firearms companies would surrender to abusive government lawsuits, as the cigarette companies did. The gun companies were also supposed to follow the cigarette companies' foolish failure to rally their own consumers. Back in 1998, New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial launched the first of the dozens of government lawsuits against firearms manufacturers in 1998. The suits were invented by invented by predatory trial lawyers made cocky by their tobacco victories, who were given the idea for a new round of lawsuits by Dennis Henigan of the Brady Center.

The lawsuits were also massively hypocritical. Mayor Morial's administration had made itself a windfall by reselling 7,300 firearms which it had confiscated from criminals. The guns which Morial put back on the street include TEC-9s, Kalashnikov rifles, and various other so-called "assault weapons" which Morial had demanded be banned.

When Moral's administration was putting guns back on the streets, it did none of the things which its lawsuit insisted that firearms manufacturers do — such as sell guns only if they contained built-in locks, or carefully monitor all retailers who acquire the guns.

The lawsuits were structured so as to divide the firearms community. Only handgun companies were sued. In contrast to well-established long-gun companies such as O. F. Mossberg, Remington, Marlin, and Winchester, the large majority of handgun manufacturers are quite thinly capitalized. The lawsuits also excluded ammunition manufacturers, even though all major manufacturers make very large amounts of handgun ammunition. You see, the ammunition manufacturers are by far the deepest pockets in the firearms business, and, unlike many of the handgun companies, would have the resources to fight dozens of cases in dozens of jurisdictions simultaneously.

The divide and conquer strategy backfired, however. The entire firearms industry could see perfectly well where things were going: most of the smaller handgun companies would be destroyed; a few larger ones might survive, but they would live under the thumbs of consent decrees written and enforced by the gun prohibition groups. Then, the time would be come for the rest of the firearms business to be targeted.

One company, Smith & Wesson, did surrender to the prohibitionist and politicians, but that capitulation was forced by the British conglomerate which owned the company (but no longer does). The surrender was hardly popular with Smith & Wesson employees, and the consumer backlash against Smith & Wesson likely reinforced the inclination of the other firearms manufacturers to hang together, rather than allow themselves to be hanged separately.

Starting at the January 1999 SHOT show, the vast majority of the rest of the industry, under the leadership of NSSF, decided to contribute a percentage of sales to a Hunting & Shooting Sports Heritage Fund, which helps pay litigation costs arising from the abusive lawsuits, and which engages in long-term public education about the positive side of firearms. Contributors include not just manufacturers of firearms and ammunition, but wide variety of companies in related fields, such as manufacturers of scopes and publishers of hunting magazines.

The NSSF public-education campaign began in 1999, when firearms owners and manufacturers came under an unprecedented attack after the Columbine murders. Since then, polling indicates five to ten percent increases in the number of Americans with favorable views of the shooting sports and of firearms.

While the gun-prohibition groups of works diligently to demonize manufacturers, 79 percent of Americans believe that the firearms industry wants its products to be used properly, and 67 percent believe that the industry supports common-sense gun laws. One way that NSSF this supporting commonsense laws is through its "Don't Lie for the Other Guy" education program for firearms retailers, to help them spot "straw purchases," in which a legal gun-buyer purchases a gun as a surrogate for a prohibited person. Attorney General Ashcroft has recommended that the training kit also be sent to U.S. Attorneys to handle firearms cases, and the "Don't Lie" education program is being promoted in cooperation with the BATF.

For decades, the American firearms industry shied away from politics, hoping that the National Rifle Association would take care of everything. But although the gun-prohibition groups pretend that the NRA is primarily concerned with profits of gun manufacturers, the NRA is actually a consumer group, controlled and run for the benefit of gun owners, not gun makers. Whenever the interests of American consumers and American manufacturers diverge-as when the American manufacturers supported the first President Bush's ban on certain firearms imports-the NRA always sides with consumers against the manufacturers.

More fundamentally, the firearms manufacturers have finally decided to grow up and stopped counting on someone else to fight their battles for them. No matter how effective the NRA, the NRA alone cannot accomplish as much as the NRA plus the NSSF. Like the NRA, the NSSF conducted a massive voter education campaign in the last presidential election. While the NRA focused on people concerned with gun rights, the NSSF directed its message more to hunters and other active participants in the shooting sports. Given the very slender margin of the Bush victory in Florida and some other states, it is fair to say that without the NSSF, Al Gore would be president today.

Ever since the modern gun-control movement began in the mid-1960s, many of the large American gun manufacturers believed that the real problem was the California companies which sold small, inexpensive handguns. The old-line companies couldn't believe that anti-gun politicians really wanted to take away people's skeet-shooting shotguns or their deer rifles, or their $1,500 target pistols. The extremist positions of the Clinton administration — and the gun-confiscation policies of Clinton allies in England, Canada, and Australia — helped the firearms industry begin to realize that the antigun agenda extended far beyond small handguns.

But Pearl Harbor day for the gun industry was the day that Marc Morial filed his lawsuit, demonstrating to the industry that its scrupulous compliance with extensive statutes and regulations was worth nothing to anti-gun politicians. Mayor Morial and his fellow lawsuit-abusing mayors awakened the sleeping giant. Because of these mayors, George Bush is president.

Although Mayor Morial and comrades were targeting the Second Amendment, they missed badly. Many of the lawsuits have been dismissed, and about half of state legislatures, including Louisiana's, have enacted statutes to ensure that such abusive lawsuits are never filed again.

Thanks to mayors like Marc Morial, America now has an administration with the greatest philosophical commitment to Second Amendment rights since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.

Thus, the biggest losers in the gun lawsuits turned out not to be the gun companies, but instead the people who are the biggest victims of the Bush presidency: the Taliban and the Axis of Evil.

The gun industry, of course, wasn't thinking about freeing the women of Afghanistan when the NSSF decided to fight back against the trial-lawyer bullies. Yet as pistol-packing Eleanor Roosevelt knew, when stand up for your own rights, you start a chain of good events which helps you — and lots of other people too, in ways that no one could foresee.

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