Many, many long years ago, I was driving my mother somewhere in our family’s stately and sedate Rambler, the car my father would later have restored for me as a twenty-first birthday present, just before it passed the 100,000-mile mark. We were driving up the I-95 in Virginia when a Plymouth Barracuda blew past us with throaty roar as it accelerated.
“Goodness!” my mother said. “What was that?”
“Barracuda? Is that the name of that car?”
“Yes. A Plymouth Barracuda.”
There was silence for a while. Then: “I think,” she said in the dreamy sort of tone I recognized as my mother emerging from one of her frequent sorties into a realm of her own imagining, “I think there ought to be a law against naming a car something like that.”
“Like what? After a fish?”
“After anything quite so aggressive. Barracuda. Mustang. Charger. Isn’t there a car called a Cobra? Well, there you go; that’s another one. Jaguar. All those aggressive names. I think it’s the reason why there are so many traffic accidents. Giving cars such aggressive names encourages people to drive recklessly. They should all be named things like the Tea Cosy, the Down Comforter, the Lace Doily, the Hot Water Bottle, the Buttercup; nice, quiet, soothing names. People would drive much more carefully and slowly and there would be far fewer accidents.”
It was absolutely vintage Mother.
I was reminded of that incident when I read about the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling that the firearms manufacturer Remington could be sued by the families of the Sandy Hook School shooting.
In that tragedy, a young man with multiple known mental health issues, including a “preoccupation with violence” (according to one of the official reports) murdered his mother and then drove to the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut and murdered twenty young children and six adults before shooting himself. The rifle he used was a modern sporting rifle manufactured by Remington on an AR-15 platform. AR does not stand for “assault rifle,” as too many non-gun owners believe, but rather for ArmaLite Rifle, after the company that developed and first manufactured that particular self-loading rifle back in the 1950’s. Nor is the rifle a civilian version of the military’s M-16 selective fire (meaning the user can choose between single shots or automatic three-round bursts) weapon. Rather the opposite is true: the military developed the M-16 based on the older AR-15. ArmaLite sold the rights to Colt and after Colt’s patents expired, numerous companies began producing civilian rifles on that particular platform. Today, no one knows precisely how many millions of the rifle have been manufactured or how many millions are privately owned, but it is generally conceded that it is the most popular type of rifle in America today. (If anyone is interested, I can happily explain why in another post.)
Back to the lawsuit: there is a law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, that says the manufacturer of a firearm cannot be held responsible or liable for the misuse of a product, only for the damage caused by defects in the product, or for criminal misconduct by the company, such as breach of contract. A company could also be held liable in the unlikely event they sold a gun knowingly to someone who intended to use it in a criminal act. In short, the law uses the same commonsense logic that applies to, say, car companies. If someone gets drunk and causes a fatality while driving home in his F-150, you cannot place the blame on Ford.
Because of the PLCAA, the lawyers have brought suit against Remington based on their marketing of the rifle, claiming semi-auto center-fire rifles have no legitimate civilian use, conveniently ignoring that it is the most popular rifle in America. According to the news reports, the wording of the ruling by the court is: “[T]here is no indication [snip] that Congress intended to restrict the power of the states to regulate wrongful advertising, particularly advertising that encourages consumers to engage in egregious criminal conduct.” And a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Josh Koskoff, was quoted as saying the court’s decision was a “critical step” toward shedding light on “Remington’s calculated and profit-driven strategy to expand the AR-15 market and court high-risk users.”
I’m sorry, but that is blithering nonsense. I’ve been around the firearms business one way or another for about forty years, much of that time being spent writing about guns. In all that time, I have never seen any advertising that either courted high-risk users, or encouraged consumers to engage in egregious criminal activity, or even came close to anything remotely similar. I wasn’t living back East at that time, but I find it very hard to imagine Remington conducted a regionally-specific advertising campaign I am unaware of, one that did promote egregious criminal conduct or courted high-risk users. On the contrary, most firearms manufacturers go out of their way to stress safe and responsible use of their products.
Since more people are killed in car accidents every year than are killed by firearms by all means (murder, accidental shooting, justifiable homicide, suicide) let’s think about my mother’s theories about advertising or naming cars to influence the behavior of drivers.
If you watch the evening news you will see a steady stream of commercials for different brands and types of automotive vehicles. With the exception of a small handful of pickup truck commercials, and a small handful of commercials for cars touting safety features and geared to cautious old fuddy-duddies like me, what you will see most often is a constant repetition of wildly dangerous and excessively fast driving: cars racing down winding, cliff-top roads, tearing unimpeded through city streets, skidding through turns, doing donuts, sliding to a stop, engaging in behaviors that would get their drivers arrested on any road in any state. Oh, yes, there is usually a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen that reads (if your vision is good enough) something along the lines of, “professional driver on a closed course,” or something like that, but the drivers we viewers get to see are always drop-dead-gorgeous young men and women in their twenties. So, if a moron drives recklessly and causes an accident, should the car company’s marketing be held responsible?
Certain beer commercials are intended to make me think that if I switch to that brand, I too will once more be slim-hipped and flat-bellied, with two percent body fat, and able to play beach volleyball without fracturing some critical structural part. If I’m stupid enough to believe that, can I then sue the advertising agency and the beer company?
This is absolutely nuts. When and how did we in this country abandon the concept of personal responsibility? The only responsible party other than the young man who perpetrated the horror at Sandy Hook was the first person he murdered. The responsibility does not lie with the tool he used or with the company that made the tool. I would even argue that the violent video games the young man apparently played were not responsible, and the proof of that is because millions of other young men and women play those games without acting them out or confusing fiction and reality.
Personally, I don’t own any kind of semi-automatic modern sporting rifle such as the AR-15, but it’s not because I disapprove of them. I just happen to think they have all the romantic and aesthetic appeal of a Waring Blender. But then, I think the greatest rifle action ever made was the old Mauser-98, so-named because it was introduced back in 1898. My era.