Putting pistol manufacturers out of business.
"If guns are outlawed," the National Rifle Association keeps reminding us, "only outlaws will have guns."
D.C. City Council Chairman David Clarke won't contest the logic of that slogan -- and how could he? Washington has both one of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation and the nation's highest handgun murder rate. Clearly gun-control laws of the sort most frequently advocated fail the test of pragmatism. They don't work.
But suppose manufacturers and distributors of handguns were held accountable for the damage done by their products. Wouldn't they be a lot less casual about selling handguns? And wouldn't there as a result be a lot fewer guns on the streets?
Clarke has no doubt, which is why he is trying, as something of a legislative swan song, to get the council to pass his "Handgun Manufacturer Strict Liability Act."
"Strict liability" is the legal doctrine holding that when a product is abnormally dangerous and its risks far outweigh its benefits the producer of the product may be held liable for the damage it does -- without the necessity of proving negligence in any particular case. Or as stated in "Restatement of Torts": "One who carries on an abnormally dangerous activity is subject to liability for harm to the person, land or chattels of another resulting from the activity, although he has exercised the utmost care to prevent the harm."
Perhaps the clearest example of "strict liability" -- an element of this country's tort law virtually from the beginning -- is the dram shop laws, which make the guy who sells you the drink liable for drink-induced damage you do to me.
It should be easy enough to establish the two key findings Clarke's bill would require: that handguns are "abnormally dangerous" and that their risks far outweigh their benefits.
The numbers Clarke cited when he introduced his measure last year tell the story. Handguns are the second leading cause of injury death in children under age 19, are the leading cause of death for black persons aged 15 to 24 and the second leading cause of death for black children between 1 and 14. They are also the No. 1 method of suicide.
And though most handguns are made and sold for self-defense, the fact is that their danger to the families of those who buy them is far greater than the added safety they provide.
The tougher questions have to do with fairness. Should the person who makes a handgun or sells it for legitimate self-defense purposes be held accountable if it falls into criminal hands and is used for illegitimate purposes? Shouldn't the person who commits a handgun crime, rather than the maker or seller of the firearm, be accountable for the damage done with the weapons? Wouldn't Clarke's "strict liability" law have the effect of driving domestic firearms manufacturers out of business to the advantage of foreign manufacturers?
Clarke, who decided to run for mayor (and lost) rather than seek reelection as council chairman, has considered all these questions and still insists that the bill is a good one.
To begin with, many of the handguns sold by legitimate dealers in neighboring Virginia are bought by persons who intend to resell them in Washington, where the strict gun-control law makes it difficult to buy weapons directly from dealers. Second, nothing in the bill would relieve the actual misuser of a handgun of liability for his actions. (Present law permits a civil suits against those who commit handgun crimes; the problem is that such persons are often poor and, therefore, judgment proof.)
As for the financial impact on domestic manufacturers, Clarke suggests that we look at the financial impact of their products on America: initial hospital costs in one year alone (1984) of $429 million -- probably well over $1 billion when the costs of long-term care and other medical fees are added in.
In other words, Clarke wouldn't lose any sleep if the handgun manufacturers simply went out of business. Their products, on the face of it, are abnormally dangerous implements whose risks far outweigh their benefits.
The only exceptions to his proposal would be for handguns sold to law enforcement agents or weapons made, imported or distributed before the effective date of his bill. The second exception would, of course, leave untouched the thousands of guns already on the city streets. But Clarke says most of these are cheap weapons that don't last very long.
Probably the worst thing to be said about the proposal is that it might lead dealers to discriminate in favor of middle-class customers and against the inner-city residents whose self-protection reasons for wanting a handgun might be more valid.
That's a problem. But so is the slaughter that has turned too many sections of Washington -- and cities across America -- into killing grounds.