The Best Government Money Can Buy

Congress once again has shown it is the best money can buy, particularly if the pay off comes from the National Rifle Association and is accompanied by the promise of votes from those who believe owning a firearm is among the most important things in life.

With the House’s decision to join the Senate in excluding the nation’s gun manufacturers from liability in most firearm-related deaths, lawmakers have done something they refused to do for any other industry, including tobacco and asbestos. Never let it be said that today’s politicians miss the lessons of history when it comes to what it takes to stay in office.

Former Vice President Gore probably lost the 2000 election not because of any funny stuff regarding vote counts in Florida and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling but because he had angered the NRA and its members by promoting safe and sound gun policies. His own Tennessee hunters took him out, making him one of the few presidential candidates in history not to carry his home state and leaving that warning indelibly imprinted in the minds of any number of courageous congressmen.

The result of this is likely to be even more success down the road for those who believe the Second Amendment of the Constitution gives every man, woman, and child in America the inalienable right to own and often carry heat. No wonder the NRA’s leading mouth, Wayne LaPierre, hailed it as a great event and said the Second Amendment had never been in better shape, presumably since it was added to the Constitution by the founders to make sure that local militias could be formed quickly to ward off attacks from Red Coats and Indians.

What LaPierre didn’t mention, of course, is the violence such a law does to the principle that no one is immune from suit in this country and that it is up to the courts to determine what is frivolous and what has merit. While the manufacture of a legal product should have protection, Congress until now never has seen fit to grant this kind of immunity. The manufacturers of airplanes, tobacco and other products are among the most vulnerable to litigation, for instance, and all have been forced to depend on court judgments.

In fact the production of light aircraft almost disappeared because of unlimited liability that ignored every thing from pilot error to faulty maintenance for the life of the plane. When liability to the manufacturer was reduced to 18 years, the industry began to thrive again.

Should this nation have a viable firearms manufacturing capability? Of course it should, and there are quite legitimate concerns about needed military resources. But those concerns always have been met without doing violence to the rights of individuals. Supporters of the new immunity contend that it does not protect the gun maker from suit because of faulty weapons nor does it provide immunity for manufacturers and dealers for deaths or injury caused by the sale of firearms to criminals. But that is a broad exception quite difficult to prove.

The new law has been stimulated by a series of suits against manufacturers by municipalities who have tried in vain to slow the violence caused by the seemingly unstoppable distribution of semiautomatic weapons and handguns even when there are strict anti-gun ordinances, the theory being that if the distributors and users can’t be stopped the makers should be the target. These suits have been stimulated in part by similar efforts against tobacco companies who have settled out of court with a number of states.

The firearms in question here are not sporting and hunting rifles and shotguns and target pistols but cheap handguns and military style weapons that have no purpose but to shoot individuals. If the industry would police itself more assiduously by controlling the sale of clearly non-sporting items there would be no need for this type protection. The manufacturers’ main lobbying arm, the NRA, however, consistently argues that any firearm, even cheap handguns called Saturday night specials and semi-automatic hand and shoulder weapons, have sporting applications.

Legal products should enjoy some natural protection until they are declared illegal. Tobacco is a case in point. It is a legal substance despite its proven lethalness. But Congress never has seen fit to give immunity to its producers, nor should it. The same should have applied to gun manufacturers. Torts do need reforming and individuals need to assume responsibility for their own actions. This law, however, goes way too far.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)