- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 1999

He was in a hurry to store his gun because he had friends coming over. But in his haste, the 23-year-old Massachusetts man pulled the trigger of his weapon while it was pointing at his abdomen and shot himself into an estimated $35,000 in medical bills and permanent disability. Under the circumstances, he did what any normal victim would do these days: sue someone. He went to court to accuse the gun manufacturer of negligence and of selling him a defective product.
At trial in federal district court, it emerged that the gun maker had in fact supplied him with copious warnings that, stretched end to end, approximated the length of the Oxford English Dictionary (“Never point your pistol at anything you do not intend to shoot,” and so on), but he hadn’t bothered to read them. As a general rule, he acknowledged, the only product literature he read had to do with programming his VCR. Further the plaintiff had used the weapon twice at a shooting range where it worked “fine,” according to his own testimony.
Federal Judge Douglas Woodlock threw the case out in 1996, dismissing some of the complaint as “frivolous” and flatly rejecting the rest. But he also spoke to a much larger constitutional issue. “It is the province of legislative or authorized administrative bodies,” he said, “and not the judicial branch, to advance through democratic channels policies that would directly or indirectly either 1) ban some classes of handguns or 2) transform firearm enterprises into insurers against misuse of their products. Frustration at the failure of legislatures to enact laws sufficient to curb handgun injuries is not adequate reason to engage the judicial forum in efforts to implement a broad policy change.”
Comes now a very frustrated Clinton administration to establish just such a forum. Having watched as gun makers survive case after case in which persons testing the limits of Darwinian theory do astonishing and terrible things to themselves with guns, having watched as state and federal lawmakers failed to arrest and outlaw the gun industry as a consequence, President Clinton has asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development to prepare a lawsuit against the industry that would, in effect, force it to change the way it markets and sells its products. By bringing suit through this country’s more than 3,000 government housing authorities, the administration hopes to overwhelm the industry with litigation beyond its means to defend and force it to the bargaining table with some 28 cities and counties that have already brought suit against gun makers so far with little success. The tobacco industry “voluntarily” agreed to burn itself by raising prices and reducing marketing of its products under just such pressure, something the courts or Congress had refused to compel up to that point.
One would have thought that, as Judge Woodlock put the matter, forcing an otherwise legal firearms industry to change its job description to get into the insurance business or to get out of certain product lines would be something better done through democratic channels, that is, congressional lawmakers. Up until recently, making laws was Congress’ job, not the president’s. No more. “I think we have enormously important public policy goals,” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said, “and if the Republicans, who control Congress, want to block sensible gun control … we will find a way to do it.”
The administration’s list of demands is not short. Among other things, it wants the industry to stop selling guns to “bad apples,” retailers who have a habit of selling guns to criminals. Mr. Clinton says that only 1 percent of federally licensed firearms dealers sell 50 percent of the guns linked to crime and traced by the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). One wonders why the Clinton administration is still licensing such gun dealers if they are so bad. By law, gun makers can sell only to licensed dealers. The ATF need only strip them of their licenses to put them out of business. But apparently the agency brings the same measure of skill to that task as it does to raiding religious groups in Waco, Texas. Is that why the administration is asking the industry to do ATF’s job?
Another proposal is to limit gun sales to one per buyer per month. Such a law is already in effect in Virginia. Though it may seem a reasonable restriction to non-gun owners, the question is what the next restriction will be: one gun per year? Moreover, there is no evidence that the law has made Virginia or federal housing projects any safer. What is working there is Project Exile, a gun-control regime that works by putting persons using guns illegally in federal prison for five years or more. Mr. Clinton once endorsed the program, which has quickly caught on around the country, but knows it won’t win him any applause at Democratic fund-raisers or his wife’s Senate campaign. So he no longer mentions it.
A better target for the lawsuit would be the agency that has allowed government “housing” to fester in a never-ending cycle of crime and decay HUD and the big city mayors whose policies have made their streets safe for gun-toting thugs. Like the sad plaintiff above, they have wounded themselves grievously through their own reckless disregard for sound strategy and now seek to cast blame elsewhere. Here’s hoping their efforts are equally successful.
E-mail:
smithk@twtmail.com


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