The U.S. rate of homicide by firearms is over thirty times that of Britain and Australia. Gun violence is a national plague, destroying lives, ravaging communities, and robbing all of us of a sense of personal safety we expect our laws to provide. However, this problem -- as urgent as it is for all Americans, who are afflicted by it in one way or another -- is of no concern to the companies that make the weapons used in gun-related crimes. With regard to taking measures to keep their products out of the hands of criminals, their only responsibility is minimal compliance with the law. Beyond that, they have no obligation to try to prevent their dealers and distributors from engaging in illegal or suspicious sales.
That is the message repeated by executives of firearms manufacturers in depositions connected with lawsuits filed against the firms by state and local governments over a decade ago. The testimony, much of it confidential, was disclosed in a recent article in the New York Times. In 2005, Congress passed a law shielding the industry from such litigation. Nevertheless, actions and statements by the gun makers since then indicate that these documents continue to reflect the industry's views.
In their depositions, the executives insist that it is not their job to "enforce the law," and an industry spokesman told the Times that the government "does not want manufacturers to play Jr. G-man." The clear implication is that any actions gun makers might take to curb sales to criminals would infringe on the authority of law enforcement agencies -- a suggestion as baseless as it is self-serving.
When police want to determine the ownership of a gun that may have been used in a crime, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives submits a trace request to the manufacturer to learn which dealer or distributor first sold it. When many "crime guns" come from one outlet, law enforcement officials see that as evidence the seller may be involved in gun trafficking. Moreover, authorities regard an individual's purchasing numerous guns at one time as a sign the buyer may be dealing guns on the black market.
Several senior industry executives testified that it did not matter to them whether any of their distributors were subjects of frequent trace requests. One even acknowledged that a dealer's indictment under firearms laws would not deter the manufacturer from selling to that firm. In fact, the executives denied that a dealer's selling numerous crime guns and one person's buying multiple guns are signs of possible criminal activity. Thus, the industry sees no need to restrict sales, and it opposes even voluntary regulation, ostracizing Smith & Wesson when it adopted sweeping reforms, soon abandoned in response to a boycott.
A lawyer for one of the manufacturers no doubt spoke for other gun makers too when he declared that his company is "proactive in all the things it reasonably can do vis-à-vis the safe and lawful use of its product." A more credible assessment is that of federal judge Jack B. Weinstein, in a 2003 decision in which, for technical reasons, he ruled in favor of the industry. According to Judge Weinstein, "A responsible and consistent program of monitoring their own sales practices, enforcing good practices by contract, and the entirely practicable supervision of sales of their products by the companies to which they sell could keep thousands of handguns from diversion into criminal use."
If the gun industry could act to reduce significantly the availability of their weapons to criminals, then it is reasonable to think that it should do so. The commonsense assumption that gun makers have a special responsibility to help combat gun violence was expressed in an affidavit by Robert Hass, a former Smith & Wesson executive. As he put it, "the nature of the product demands that its distribution be handled in such a way as to minimize illegal and unintended use." Obviously, Mr. Hass was invoking the generally accepted principle that manufacturers of products whose illicit use endangers the public (such as explosives, toxic chemicals, and pharmaceuticals) have a moral obligation to try to prevent such misuse. But, as is evident from the depositions reviewed by the Times, the firearms industry exempts itself from this principle, holding that its only obligation is to obey the law.
Whether the principle applies to the gun industry turns on the question of whether the illegal use of guns endangers the public. On this point, there can be no real debate. In our cities, shootings -- often fatal -- are everyday occurrences. In general, our levels of gun crime far exceed those of most other industrialized countries.
Although gun manufacturers are not legally required to implement the policies recommended by Judge Weinstein, as corporate citizens the companies have a duty to demonstrate a much greater commitment to the safety of the public than they have shown so far. Indeed, these are businesses that make a large share of their profits marketing guns to law-abiding citizens to protect themselves from criminals. How, then, can their leaders in good conscience at the same time refuse to take reasonable precautions to keep criminals from buying their guns -- and even punish members of the industry who advocate such actions?
Gun violence constitutes one of the gravest assaults on law and order. Since every individual and institution in the country has a stake in efforts to alleviate this problem, then surely all of us -- including (especially) the companies that manufacture the guns -- have a solemn civic duty to support those efforts. With power comes responsibility, and the firearms industry certainly has the power to reduce criminals' access to guns. It is time for that industry to accept its responsibility and exercise this power.