Having won a landmark jury verdict in Brooklyn, plaintiffs'
lawyers are lining up to take more shots at the gun industry.
They claim that gun makers are negligently selling weapons that
wind up being used in crimes and accidental deaths. And just
as in the tobacco cases, government officials are jumping at the
chance to collect some revenues by targeting an unpopular industry.
Five cities have joined ensuing gun makers, and others threaten
to do so. Chicago went so far as to conduct undercover sting
operations supposedly showing that retailers recklessly market
their guns directly to undercover cops posing as gang members.
The Clinton administration is also doing its part
for its friends in the plaintiffs' bar. The Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms recently released a report asserting that,
more often than not, the guns used in crimes are purchased, not
stolen. This finding received uncritical coverage on all the
networks and newspapers. President Clinton also constantly asserts
that gun shows serve as a source of guns to criminals, misleading
people into believing that licensed firearms dealers can somehow
sell guns at such shows without conducting personal background
A little perspective is needed here. Americans own
about 240 million guns. Some 450,000 gun crimes were committed
in 1996. Even in the unlikely case that the average criminal
uses the same gun just twice, only 0.09% of all guns are used
for criminal purposes in any given year.
The administration report claims that "straw"
purchases-in which guns are bought with the intent of reselling
them to criminals--may account for between a third and half of
the guns used to commit crimes, but its evidence is very indirect.
Instead of actually tracing a gun's history, the administration
study assumed that guns that are less than three years old are
being transferred by straw purchases. The report acknowledges
that many of the guns that find their way into crime after three
years might have been stolen. Even so, let's say the administration's
most extreme claims are true. If criminals on average use one
gun to commit two crimes, only about 0.5% of recently sold guns
have made it into illegal use.
The report never even traces more than 43% of the
guns recovered in crimes-- and, as the report acknowledges, these
untraced guns are much more likely to be stolen. All the report's
assumptions were consistently made to exaggerate the rate at which
straw purchases are made.
Is this maximum estimate of a 0.5% of sales evidence
of recklessness? Is the standard that no guns sold by retailers
will ever find their way into criminal activity?
The plaintiffs' solution to this supposed oversupply
of guns is even more remarkable. Without recognizing the obvious
antitrust violations, they expect gun companies simply to reduce
sales. How are they supposed to coordinate this industry wide
output reduction and simultaneously prevent the resulting higher
prices from encouraging the entry of new competitors? And even
if this output restriction could be accomplished legally, does
anyone really believe that a reduction in sales would reduce only
sales to criminals?
Given that citizens use guns to prevent crimes about
five times more frequently than crimes are committed with guns,
equal percentage reductions in gun ownership by good guys and
bad guys will lead to more crime. Higher prices will most hurt
those who most need guns for protection. Minorities who live
in poor urban areas face the greatest risks from crime. They
will be among the first squeezed out by higher prices.
Lawsuits seek to bypass the legislative process.
If politicians are determined to reduce the use of a product,
taxes or regulations accomplish that end more effectively. If
"too many" guns are being sold as these suits claim,
gun sales could be taxed even more heavily. But Congress and
state legislatures have decided against more controls. The plaintiffs
now want the courts to punish law-abiding manufacturers for past
sales that complied with the law.
So what about the city of Chicago's evidence of gun
shops selling to under- cover police officers dressed in gang
colors or using gang language? These were unusual sting operations,
in which the police somehow failed to record any of the conversations
and have yet to file criminal complaints. They are also a civil
libertarians' nightmare (although the politically-correct ACLU
seems strangely silent about this). The gun dealers faced a no-win
situation. These supposed gang members met all the state requirements
by passing criminal background checks and signing the required
forms promising to obey state and local laws. Had the retailers
not sold firearms to black undercover officers posing as gang
members, they surely would have faced discrimination lawsuits.
The Clinton administration seems unchastened by repeatedly
having been caught falsely reporting data on the Brady law's effectiveness.
With its new report, the administration is also shooting blanks.