Today’s lead story in the New York Times deserves our full attention, so that’s what we’ll be talking about. (That said, another front page Times story about the President’s efforts to fill three critical vacancies on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia should not be missed either! One of those nominations may be the awesome David C. Frederick, who has represented consumers before the U.S. Supreme Court many times. For example, he won Wyeth vs. Levine, preventing drug companies from asserting immunity for marketing its unsafe FDA-approved drugs.)
But back to the lead story. It’s about guns. But it’s about so much more. It’s about the important role that litigation plays in exposing information to the wider public, a theme we have covered in other contexts. It’s also about how civil lawsuits against one company can work to protect the public- unless the industry as a whole isn’t held to account, too.
The Times was given access to previously undisclosed depositions – some marked “confidential”- from decades-old lawsuits against gun manufacturers for contributing to gun violence. “More than 30 cities, counties or states filed suit against gun makers beginning in the late 1990s.” These lawsuits were stopped in 2005 when George W. Bush signed into law legislation that immunized the gun industry, something we have had the sad opportunity to point out many times lately. (Like here, here.) Writes the Times:
[A] review of the documents, which were obtained by The New York Times, shows the industry’s leaders arguing, often with detachment and defiance, that their companies bear little responsibility, beyond what the law requires, for monitoring the distributors and dealers who sell their guns to the public.
The executives claimed not to know if their guns had ever been used in a crime. They eschewed voluntary measures to lessen the risk of them falling into the wrong hands. And they denied that common danger signs — like a single person buying many guns at once or numerous “crime guns” that are traced to the same dealer — necessarily meant anything at all.…
In the wake of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and other recent high-profile shootings, the gun industry’s response — that existing laws should be better enforced rather than new restrictions imposed — largely mirrors its stance from a decade ago.
Because of lobbying by gun-rights groups, there are more restrictions on the government’s use of trace data than when the lawsuits began. And the industry continues to oppose limits on multiple gun sales to a single buyer, a major theme of the lawsuits; it is in court fighting a new requirement that dealers report such rifle sales under certain circumstances. …
The Times discusses testimony from several former industry insiders. We found the testimony and experience of Smith & Wesson particular interesting – and distressing:
Another insider, Robert Hass, a former Smith & Wesson executive, testified that “the nature of the product demands that its distribution be handled in such a way as to minimize illegal and unintended use.” And yet, he said in an affidavit, “the industry’s position has consistently been to take no independent action to ensure responsible distribution practices.”
Smith & Wesson was the only major company to settle the litigation against it in 2000. As part of this settlement,
[I]t adopted a number of far-reaching changes, including promising to design a handgun that could not be operated by children and forbidding its dealers and distributors from selling at gun shows unless background checks were conducted on all sales.
Smith & Wesson’s sales quickly plummeted amid an industry backlash. Documents produced through the discovery process in the municipal suits show other gun makers seeking to isolate the company. A letter from Dwight Van Brunt, an executive at Limber America, a gun maker, to top officials at a firearms industry trade group urged them to confer with the N.R.A. and “boycott Smith now and forever. Run them out of the country.”
“You guys need to make sure that no one else is going to join the surrender,” Mr. Van Brunt wrote.
None did. When a new company bought Smith & Wesson in 2001, executives distanced themselves from the arrangement, which had never been enforced. The company resumed its place in trade groups like the shooting sports foundation.
“It was important that we be an active part of the industry again,” Robert Scott, the new chief executive of Smith & Wesson, said in a 2002 deposition.
Last year, Smith & Wesson was inducted by the N.R.A. into its “Golden Ring of Freedom” circle of donors, reserved for patrons who have given a million dollars or more to the group, another milestone in the company’s long journey back.