Suing is no remedy

January 24, 1999|By George F. Will

NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Marc Morial says money is not the city's main objective as it collaborates with some trial lawyers in suing handgun manufacturers and other parties. Money had better not be the objective.

Ten manufacturers produce 90 percent of U.S.-made handguns. The entire industry's annual gross from handgun sales, $2 billion to $3 billion, cannot provide much of a windfall -- after the lawyers take their cuts -- for the 50 or more cities that may sue.

The cities say they are trying to recoup the costs of misuses of the manufacturers' products. Although different litigating governments are relying on different theories, all the arguments assume something problematic -- that private ownership of handguns is a determinable net cost to governments.

Send in the lawyers

New Orleans' product-liability suit against 15 manufacturers, three trade associations and several local pawnshops seeks damages for sales of guns that were "unreasonably dangerous." They supposedly were because they did not incorporate "recognition technologies" -- e.g., firing mechanisms activated only by a particular set of fingerprints, or by a signal sent by a computer chip in a ring worn by the owner -- that would prevent their use by anyone other than the owner.

Mr. Morial candidly says the reason the city is collaborating with trial lawyers working on a contingency-fee basis is that the city cannot afford to finance what may be protracted litigation. He is equally candid in saying that it is difficult precisely to ascertain the supposed costs of gun use.

Mr. Morial's exasperation about the costs of gunshots -- from emergency vehicles to emergency rooms to rehabilitative medicine -- is understandable. So is Chicago's frustration about mayhem by individuals who buy handguns in suburbs that have less-restrictive gun sales.

Chicago is seeking $433 million compensation for police and hospital costs ascribed to gun violence since 1994. But a University of Chicago law professor, John B. Lott, argues that Americans supplement police services and save municipalities large sums by using guns defensively against criminals 2 million times a year, mostly by just brandishing guns.

What about the welfare of children, which is today's reason of first resort for advocates of government action? Considering that bicycles, space heaters, swimming pools and cigarette lighters each kill more children under 15 than are killed annually by gun accidents (200 in 1996), most of the approximately 80 million Americans who own 200 million to 240 million guns must be quite careful.

Some supporters of the gun suits hope to bankrupt, by litigation costs, gun manufacturers -- makers of a legal product that only 16 percent of Americans favor banning. Thus the suits are weapons of anti-democrats who pursue social change by judicial fiat.

The suits are extensions of the brazen cynicism of the tobacco suits, which have successfully asserted, falsely, that cigarette smoking costs government money. (Not only are cigarettes the world's most heavily taxed consumer good, governments also profit from the early deaths of smokers who do not collect medical and pension benefits.)

The gun suits also mimic the tobacco suits in displacing responsibility. The tobacco companies are being held liable for consumers' foolish choices in using a legal product widely known to be harmful. The gun manufacturers may be held liable for individuals' misuses of products that are supposed to be capable of inflicting harm, even death.

The suits are the most recent wrinkle in the pernicious practice of delegating the pursuit of public purposes to entrepreneurial trial lawyers, and the use of litigation to revise social policy and seize new sources of revenues for governments. However, there will be other wrinkles. Imagine:

Forty-seven states profit from lotteries or other forms of gambling. Perhaps soon some trial lawyers will gather some "addictive gamblers" and sue cities and states for the financial and other pain and suffering for which the cities and states are (the suits will charge) responsible because they make gambling available and aggressively advertise to encourage gambling. Such suits will be condign punishment for governments that have improvidently subcontracted policy-making to trial lawyers.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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