Tough on Guns

By Dionne, E. J., Jr. | Nation's Cities Weekly, March 8, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Tough on Guns

Dionne, E. J., Jr., Nation's Cities Weekly

There's a basic principle: If you make a product that's genuinely dangerous, you have some responsibility for the damage it might cause. Oddly, this doctrine has rarely been applied to the manufacturers of guns. But thanks to five American cities, that's about to change.

Like the tobacco companies, the gun companies find themselves under siege in lawsuits. The suits allege that people who make guns should do all they can to see that they're used properly, provide all the safety devices possible to prevent their misuse, and to organize distribution systems that don't make it easy for the guns to fall into criminal hands.

The suits have the potential to transform the gun debate. Until now, it has largely been about laws to regulate the purchase of guns and to force registration. It's been a battle involving "society's interest in controlling guns versus the inconvenience to gun owners," says Dennis Henigan, legal director at the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

When the fight is cast that way, many law-abiding gun owners come to see themselves as under siege from liberal, big government regulators who want to complicate their lives and take away their hunting rifles.

But the lawsuits make gun controllers look less like advocates of a meddling nanny state and more like champions of consumer protection and corporate responsibility.

No wonder the National Rifle Association is pushing state legislatures to pass bills banning local governments from suing gun manufacturers and distributors. The bill introduced in Florida this week is a truly astonishing attack on local autonomy: It would make it a felony for any local official to file a lawsuit against the gun industry.

And this is no laughing matter. The Georgia Legislature lure already passed a bill prohibiting anti-gun lawsuits. And as Sharon Walsh reported in The Washington Post, such proposals are about to be introduced in Texas, Michigan, Kansas, Vermont, Wyoming, Louisiana, Minnesota and Alabama. The Texas bill will be an interesting test for Gov. George W. Bush and his "compassionate conservatism."

Gun control has been gaining ground ever since former President George Bush pushed hard for a war on drugs and his drug czar, William Bennett, argued that some gun regulations were needed to win it.

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