U.S. gun industry due for regulation

For the past two decades, gun makers have indulged in an orgy of irresponsibility.

April 26, 1999|By Tom Diaz

EVEN before the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., the U.S. gun industry was in trouble. Recently, a Brooklyn, N.Y., jury handed down the first verdict in U.S. history holding gun makers collectively liable for deaths and injuries to private parties.

The Brooklyn case bodes ill for a shaky industry, and the worst is yet to come. Five cities have already filed lawsuits based on a variety of legal and factual arguments. More cities, several states and groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are considering similar lawsuits.

The livelihood of workers -- indeed, the very survival of companies such as Colt Firearms and Smith & Wesson -- may be at stake. The temptation is to blame greedy lawyers, but the industry has only itself to blame.

For the past two decades, gun makers have indulged in an orgy of irresponsibility. Faced with saturated markets, they sought to stimulate sales by flooding the country with lethality -- guns plainly designed to do a better job of killing human beings. These firearms include high-capacity semiautomatic pistols, military-style civilian semiautomatic assault weapons such as Colt's AR-15, palm-sized high-caliber "pocket rockets" and even military sniper rifles.

Marketing-enhanced killing power has resulted in vast profits for a few companies. For the rest of us, however, the result has been a civilian bloodbath without equal in the industrialized world.

Every two years guns kill more Americans than those who died in the Vietnam War. The annual cost of this mayhem totals in the tens of billions of dollars. The bill for a fair share of those billions is being laid at the gun companies' doors.

How did we get here?

Little regulation

To begin with, the gun industry enjoys extraordinary privilege in American commerce. Only it and the tobacco industry are exempt from federal product health and safety laws. Like the tobacco industry, the gun industry for decades defeated private lawsuits seeking to hold it liable for the deaths and injuries its products inflict. Meanwhile, with the aid of the National Rifle Association, the industry blocked meaningful federal regulatory control.

This privileged status has had evil consequences. Free of regulatory oversight requiring even the simplest of safety devices, the industry sat on its collective hands.

(Colt's recent tax-subsidized foray into developing the so-called "smart gun" is at bottom merely a ploy to develop a new handgun market.)

Worse than indifference to safety has been the deliberate push to sell greater killing power. Gun makers use lethality just as cigarette makers use nicotine to hook customers and make profits without regard to public health consequences.

Every gun is lethal. But some types of firearms are more efficient at killing than others. These are distinguished by the ability to hold more rounds of ammunition in high-capacity magazines, the use of higher caliber or more powerful bullets, greater concealability, or all three.

It is an open secret within the gun industry that its survival has depended on marketing these more-lethal guns to civilians.

After a boom in the 1960s, the industry hit harder times and has since struggled with sluggish markets. Reasons for this chronic problem include the durability of guns, the decline of hunting, the end of the military draft that exposed young men to firearms and the rise of other recreational attractions. The net result has been a huge marketing problem.

Like makers of other consumer products, the gun industry turned to innovation. The leading industry magazine, Shooting Industry, reported in 1993, "Convincing people they need more guns is the job of innovation."

More power

What sort of innovation did the industry pursue? The record is damning. Instead of increasing safety or refining recreational qualities, the gun industry aggressively pursued innovations that increase killing power.

Thus, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the industry introduced the high-capacity 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, the so-called "wondernine." For a century before then, the U.S. handgun market was dominated by revolvers, the familiar "six-shooter." The revolver's standard ammunition capacity is six rounds, and it's fairly cumbersome to reload. In contrast, the high-capacity pistol holds up to 16 rounds, can be reloaded with another 16 in mere seconds and can be fired faster than most revolvers.

By 1986, domestic pistol production surpassed revolver production for good. Analysts have directly traced the explosion of youth gun violence in the mid-1980s to the proliferation of these high-capacity pistols.

An attempted 1994 federal ban of assault weapons has been ineffective because the industry has designed clever "rule beaters" to get around the law.

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