The New York Personal Injury Blog

One Failed Gun Control Strategy: Litigation

Sometimes, lawsuits are not filed for financial reasons. Instead, the lawsuit is merely a tool to get answers, to assign blame, or to put a company out of business by running up exorbitant legal fees. For the last strategy, the death by a thousand paper cuts, the plaintiff will refuse to settle and will push extraneous motions for years in order to build up the cost of the lawsuit.

Unethical? Quite possibly. Does it happen? All the time.

Litigation, with legitimate ends in mind or not, was one strategy formerly pursued by gun control advocates. Fortunately or not, they lost. They lost in legal decisions, and eventually, a federal law banned lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

Legal Decisions

In 1991, Winchester introduced a new type of bullet, the "Black Talon", which formed razor sharp edges when fired and would mutilate tissue far more than a standard rounded bullet. Needless to say, they were far more effective at killing, and therefore, far more dangerous in the wrong hands.

After a series of deaths from these bullets, lawsuits were filed in courts around the country, including one in New Jersey. The plaintiffs argued that the design was defective because there was a reasonable alternative and safer design (the traditional bullet).

The strategy was brilliantly creative. Typically, when there is a reasonable alternative and safer design for a product, a manufacturer is required to adopt it. For example, a manufacturer today would not make a cigarette lighter that lacked child safety features. The argument would seem to be applicable here as well. Traditional bullets are sufficient for home defense and other legal uses, yet do not mutilate tissue.

The court's response?

"The function of a bullet is to inflict injury or death.... Unfortunately, it is reality that some products ... must, by their very nature, be dangerous to be functional. And while they have the potential to inflict injury or death, this alone does not necessarily give rise to liability."

Case dismissed.

The End of Litigation?

In 2002, the D.C.-area sniper attacks were perpetrated by a duo that used a stolen Bushmaster AR-15 rifle. According to the Huffington Post, it was shoplifted from a gun store that was later found to be engaging in shoddy recordkeeping. Victims of the snipers sued the gun store and the manufacturer and walked away with a $2.5 million settlement.

Why? While the store was probably at fault for allowing someone to shoplift a rifle, Bushmaster was probably avoiding the "death by a thousand paper cuts" mentioned earlier. Sometimes it is cheaper to settle, even if you were not entirely at fault.

That wasn't the only lawsuit pending against manufacturers either. As a result, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005, which barred lawsuits against manufacturers due to the illegal acts of their customers. They can still be sued for defective guns, or their own negligence, but they cannot be sued if someone buys a gun and misuses it. This would seem to bar lawsuits over the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado, both of which coincidentally involved Bushmaster AR-15 rifles.

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