Cox: Capitalism can help solve the gun problem

By Rob Cox
December 14, 2015

Rob Cox, who grew up and lives in Newtown, Connecticut, is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

While squabbling among America’s Republican presidential candidates will reach fever pitch at Tuesday’s debate, they seem to agree on two things. They speak about ending so-called crony capitalism, and they are united against imposing new regulations on the firearms industry. But what if the free markets they espouse could help remove the scourge of American gun violence?

It is hard to imagine a piece of legislation that better defines crony capitalism than the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). The bill, passed in 2005 by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, effectively shields gunmakers from what may be the single most forceful source of discipline in American capitalism: the rule of law.

Arms manufacturers like Remington Outdoor and Smith & Wesson, whose assault-style weapons were used to murder 14 people in San Bernardino on Dec. 2, manufacture the deadliest consumer products known to man. Yet they enjoy protection from liability and negligence lawsuits accorded to no other industry – not to toy producers, not to mortgage lenders, not to carmakers.

Remington, formerly known as Freedom Group, noted under the “legal proceedings” section of a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission: “Our products are protected under the PLCAA, which prohibits ‘causes of action against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers of firearms or ammunition products, and their trade associations, for the harm solely caused by the criminal or unlawful misuse of firearm products or ammunition products by others when the product functioned as designed and intended.’”

The National Rifle Association called the PLCAA “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years” when it was passed. The law was an attempt by Congress to pick one industry – one with a ferociously successful lobbying organization – as a winner, effectively subsidizing its activities by sheltering it from legal action. That is crony capitalism, just the kind of government assistance GOP candidates rail against.

There is nothing unconstitutional, perhaps nothing more American, than the notion of unleashing the same free-market capitalism on the weapons business as on everyone else.

By backing a repeal of the PLCAA, the presidential candidates could show their commitment to market forces and avoid singling out the firearms industry with new rules – while still mitigating the gun violence that has become a black mark against American exceptionalism.

Allowing the market to work on gunmakers just as it does on any other industry would not immediately reduce gun deaths on its own. But it would help create economic incentives for gunmakers and distributors to ensure that their products don’t wind up in the wrong hands and being used for murderous purposes in places like San Bernardino or Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook School three years ago today.

Plaintiffs with legitimate gripes would be able to hold manufacturers like Remington and Smith & Wesson to greater account through the courts. The threat of big damages awards has encouraged companies in other industries to adopt better practices and safety standards to protect themselves and their shareholders.

What might this look like in gun land? Start with the introduction of safety features including radio-frequency identification systems or biometric trigger locks like those on an iPhone, preventing unauthorized use of a firearm by anyone other than its rightful owner. With safety established as a unique selling point, what might be called the Volvo of guns could even emerge, leading a shift away from marketing that almost exclusively emphasizes the lethal capabilities of firearms.

The threat of potentially ruinous lawsuits would take America a step closer to privatizing what economists call the negative externalities of the weapons trade rather than burdening the public. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, gun violence robs the U.S. economy of at least $229 billion a year, half of which is borne directly by taxpayers.

Surely even Ted Cruz, the pro-gun Texas senator and presidential candidate who recently called President Barack Obama an “unmitigated socialist,” can see the philosophical problem with supporting legislation that socializes such costs.

Imposing normal market incentives on gunsmiths – to reiterate the point, nothing more than companies like JPMorgan, Procter & Gamble and General Motors face every day – might also encourage them to be more supportive of broad measures that might keep legal trouble at bay, such as universal background checks for gun purchasers. Manufacturers would also have business reasons to do a better job of policing retailers, weeding out the relatively few bad apples responsible for selling disproportionate numbers of weapons to bad guys.

By calling for a repeal of the PLCAA, the Republican candidates have a unique opportunity to put their rhetorical critiques of crony capitalism into action, and let the free market help fix America’s gun-violence epidemic.

16 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Thousands more Americans are killed by vehicles every year than by guns. Does anyone talk about restricting driving because of this fact? No. Argument over.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

Oh and don’t forget- the NRA is just millions of Americans who work for the fireamrs industry.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

If a car is used as a vehicle for murder, is the manufacturer charged? NO

Posted by jestertoo | Report as abusive

” Does anyone talk about restricting driving because of this fact? No. Argument over.”
Please learn to read for content. The article does not suggest restricting anything. In fact, the argument suggests removing a restriction. Argument over.

Posted by BGDavis | Report as abusive

Wow for a business oriented news service this is quite biased reporting. This should go under opinion column rather then breaking news as nothing about this is uptodate.

Posted by wanderlustx5 | Report as abusive

Actually cars ARE very regulated and driving is VERY restricted. We know who every vehicle belongs to according to VIN. We work to ensure that every driver is properly licensed and impose severe penalties on those who are unlicensed. Neither of those is true with firearms as person to person sales are completely unregulated

Posted by Riskin1 | Report as abusive

Mr. Cox fails to clarify the fact that the PLCAA allows lawsuits related to legitimate legal reasons, such as product defects, fraudulence, etc. The objective is to restrict suits against gun manufacturers related to death or injury by guns used in crimes; suits with no legitimate standing against the manufacturers. Rather, these would be suits brought for political purposes.
To be clear, this has Nothing to do with free market capitalism. In other words, this was a strawman argument so typical of the left.

Posted by DPJr | Report as abusive

Total number of motor vehicle deaths in 2013: 32,719
Gun deaths in 2013: 33,169
To get a driver’s license you have to know how to drive.
To get a gun permit you do not need to have ever even touched a gun before.

Posted by IkeaTable | Report as abusive

This change in the law is long overdue.

Posted by Street-Wise-Guy | Report as abusive

This crock of baloney has gone the way of the Piltdown Man. Go clean up Chicago if you want to make a difference.

Posted by OdysseusMTanner | Report as abusive

UgoneHearMe,

Yes, driving is restricted by required recalls and required safety upgrades.

Also the manufacturers do pay damages.

In addition automobiles are required to be insured.

More so, drivers can be taken off the road.

Game Over!

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

This is like being able to sue a car company for product liability if a drunk driver kills people.

Posted by Mr_Creosote | Report as abusive

I read somewhere that 90,000 Americans have been killed with firearms since Sandy Hook. Whether or not that’s true, no one ever considers that approximately 60% of firearms deaths are suicide.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

Killed by cars? Are you kidding. You are utterly wrong. And the 2nd commenter? The NRA is one of the smallest lobbying groups in Washington. Yes there are a few million members, but they are mostly citizens not gun industry workers, and the membership is tiny compared to other lobbying groups, like big oil, the auto industry, Tobacco, Pharma, etc.

Don’t you ever check your facts? Or was that a stupid comment too?

Posted by WheneverPS | Report as abusive

It won’t matter, the whole Right Wing gets myopic when gun rights is brought up. Even if this levels the playing field they will find some convenient stone to crawl under and ignore the issue until something else crops up that they can yell shrilly about.

Posted by Dehumanist | Report as abusive

In response to Riskin1

1.Actually cars ARE very regulated and driving is VERY restricted.

If you only knew how many drivers under the influence are on the roads.

2. We know who every vehicle belongs to according to VIN.

Sorry, not in the real world. A vehicle can go through numerous buyers without registration. It happens all the time.

3. We work to ensure that every driver is properly licensed and impose severe penalties on those who are unlicensed.

You need to spend a day in traffic court in a major city or talk to the police in a major city.

And since I was a licensed Peace Officer in a major metropolitan area, I know a lot about what goes on in the real world.

Posted by twl101 | Report as abusive