Gun Lawsuits Make Us Less Safe

The mayors of New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami-Dade County and Bridgeport, Conn., have filed lawsuits against gun manufacturers to recover costs related to firearm violence in their cities. Other cities seem likely to file suit in the near future. They want gun makers to reimburse their cities for the public health and safety costs associated with treating and preventing injuries caused by firearms used in crimes.

Some of the lawsuits argue that guns are a public nuisance and gun manufacturers knowingly flood cities with more guns than they could expect to sell to law-abiding citizens, thus arming criminals. Others claim that guns as they are currently manufactured are unreasonably dangerous because gun makers allegedly have suppressed safety devices that would prevent unauthorized users from firing guns.

But there is an element here that the mayors, and other antigun interests, conveniently overlook: guns actually prevent more crimes than they cause, and in fact save money for society. A new study by H. Sterling Burnett, a colleague of mine at the National Center for Policy Analysis, gives an idea of the savings.

According to at least 15 studies, citizens use guns for self-defense somewhere between 800,000 and 3.6 million times per year (in the vast majority of cases, merely showing the firearm prevents the crime). The most comprehensive study estimated defensive gun uses at more than 2.5 million per year. This far exceeds the number of crimes committed with firearms. Using estimates for the cost of firearm violence from several different studies, Burnett calculates that benefits from defensive gun use each year exceed the costs of violent firearm crimes – the costs the mayors want the gun manufacturers to pay for – by no less than $90 million and possibly as much as $38 billion.

Interestingly, just last year economist John Lott found, after studying years of records in every county in the nation, that the liberalization of laws allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons had an important part in reducing crime. Thirty-one states have such laws – 22 of them having passed since 1987. Lott found that concealed carry laws reduce murder by 8.5 percent, rape by 5 percent and severe assault by 7 percent. He also calculated that if such laws had been in effect nationwide in any given year, there would have been 1,600 fewer murders, 4,200 fewer rapes and 60,000 fewer severe assaults.

But those suing the gun manufacturers not only are ignoring the substantial benefits from defensive gun use, but also are trying to use the courts to impose their views on the public when they can't get popularly elected legislatures to do so. If the past is any indicator, they may be thwarted. Both federal and state courts have been nearly unanimous in holding that courts shouldn't legislate gun policy.

As a federal court said in one case, "Frustration at the failure of legislatures to enact laws sufficient to curb handgun injuries is not adequate reason to engage the judicial forum in efforts to implement a broad policy change."

Holding the gun makers responsible for criminal misuse of their products, as these suits would do, would also reverse sound product liability law. Should auto manufacturers have to pay when cars are used in vehicular homicides committed by drunken drivers or people in the grip of road rage.

If this becomes the new product liability standard, we can look for more business for already-clogged courts, accompanied by higher prices and a decline in product availability in general, as manufacturers are forced to base many of their decisions on the possibility of being sued for a sound product used in unsound fashion.

Fortunately, the antigun lawsuits are backfiring in many state legislatures. Georgia has enacted, and other states are considering, legislation forbidding cities from suing the gun industry. Wyoming lawmakers have introduced legislation encouraging the state's attorney general to intervene on behalf of gun manufacturers in liability lawsuits.

The lawsuits will not reduce crime, poverty, or homelessness, improve the schools, or fill potholes. If they should be successful, a decline in lawful gun ownership might well lead to an increase in crime and unemployment, as citizens are left defenseless against criminal violence and industries flee to friendlier and safer business environments. Ironically, by preventing these suits, state legislators are defending the mayors from their own shortsightedness.

The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.