The right to keep and bear arms “is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
– Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, 2010
When I started my PR career, I worked for a firm in New York City that worked for the Tobacco Institute, which represented cigarette manufacturers. At the time, the industry was under growing criticism for selling a product that killed and sickened millions of people. Its early PR response was to counterattack by demanding “freedom” for smokers.
Later, a class action lawsuit was brought against major tobacco companies. The plaintiffs’ proved in court that cigarettes, used as intended, killed people and cost states millions in healthcare costs. The result were billion dollar judgments and sweeping changes to how cigarettes were marketed and sold with many of the reforms self-imposed by the tobacco industry.
The recent slaughter of 17 children and adults at a Florida high school has once again ignited the national debate over assault weapons. Like those before it, this one will probably peter out as the news cycles move along and public attention is turned elsewhere, at least until the next mass shooting, when the merry-go-round of horror/ grief/ thoughts-and-prayers/ anger/ and debate begins anew.
By now, you’d think mass shooting victims and their families would have sued the gun industry, employing the legal blueprint that held the tobacco industry accountable. When used as intended, "assault weapons are designed for rapid fire, close quarter shooting at human beings,” says the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “They are mass produced mayhem.”
Anticipating the probability of such lawsuits, the National Rifle Association won immunity from legal action after President George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005. Thus shielded, the assault weapons ban imposed in 1995 lapsed after ten years and AR15s and similar war weapons flew off the shelves.
When he was 18, the Parkland, Florida shooter legally bought one despite his well known mental and emotional troubles. After being expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, he returned to the school, pulled a fire alarm and blasted away.
The shooter used his weapon exactly as intended – “for rapid fire, close quarter shooting at human beings” - so the way to curb this kind of gun violence is to hold gun manufacturers liable. If you’re going to make a weapon of war and sell it to anyone, when it is used to kill or maim innocent people those victims or their families should have the right to sue for monetary damages.
For its part, the extremist NRA trumpets the same “freedom” arguments the tobacco industry pushed decades ago. Your right to own war weapons, it claims, supersedes the right of those who don’t want to be killed by them.
Last week, as the funerals of the Florida victims were taking place, a defiant NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre declared his organization works every day to improve safety, a transparent falsehood. In fact, the NRA is only concerned about the industry selling as many guns and as much ammunition as possible.
To help accomplish that goal it has a prolific propaganda operation that irresponsibly churns out disinformation, conspiracy theories and obfuscation: “jackbooted thugs” are coming for your guns; an apocalypse is just around the corner so arm yourself; or form a commission to “deep study” mass shootings, as NRA national board member and former Georgia congressman Bob Barr recently proposed.
The problem is not the easy availability of war weapons, say NRA propagandists and their conservative media allies, it’s the mainstream media or it’s the mental health system or it’s the family or it’s law enforcement or, in the case of Parkland, it’s the victims. The NRA’s sole solution to stopping mass shootings is more guns.
Nowhere else in the developed world do they experience the senseless bloodbaths we routinely endure in America because access to war weapons is strictly regulated. As Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck put it, “there is no reason that a peaceful society based on the rule of law needs its citizenry armed with 30-round magazines.”
So why is the gun industry immunized from litigation when the manufacturers of most every other consumer product, from cars to pharmaceuticals to toys, are not? Congress could repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and the NRA would be hard-pressed to explain why that hurts law abiding gun owners. Americans with sporting arms, target guns, and home protection weapons would not be affected.
Expose gun manufacturers to liability and watch how fast the industry moves from extremism to moderation after a jury awards mass shooting victims billions of dollars.
Kevin Foley owns KEF Media Associates, Inc., an Atlanta-based producer and distributor of electronic publicity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.