What's wrong with me? I'm genuinely concerned about the gunplay that has made America one of the most dangerous places on the globe. I think people who keep handguns and young children in the same house are begging for trouble. I have no sympathy for gun dealers who sell their wares with the all-but-certain knowledge that they'll be resold with no questions asked and contempt for the people who manufacture assault weapons for sale to the general public. So why does it bother me that the D.C. government has joined the long line of cities seeking money damages from gun manufacturers for the harm their products do?
Not that the District is a Johnny-come-lately to the idea. David Clarke, the late chairman of the D.C. Council, introduced legislation more than a decade ago modeled after the venerable dramshop laws that make the establishment that sold you your last drink responsible for the liquor-induced damage you do.
I don't like that one either. And I don't like the idea that tobacco companies ought to be made to pay damages to people who get lung cancer from smoking. What's wrong with me?
My first flaw, I suppose, is my distaste for the deep-pockets concept that has come to dominate our tort law. You know how it goes:
A court finds the penniless driver of the car that broadsided you 98 percent responsible for your crushed spine, then finds the manufacturer of the headlights on your car (which, had they been stronger, might have let you avoid the collision) 2 percent responsible. The law lets you go after the headlight company for the entire claim.
My second, and major, weakness, though, is my belief that you ought to be responsible for what you do. If you smash into my car because your brakes failed as the result of shoddy manufacturing, the manufacturer ought to be held responsible. But if the crash happened because you were speeding or drunk or careless, then it's on you. And if you haven't got any money, then I guess that's why I buy insurance.
If I get lung cancer because I've been led by the tobacco company to believe that smoking its brand would improve my health, stamina and intelligence, then I'll sue the company for false advertising. But when the cigarette pack contains a health-risk warning straight from the surgeon general of the United States--and when the lung cancer risks are known to every first-grader in the land--how can it be somebody else's fault when my luck runs out?
What I find particularly odd is that we almost never go after the producers of illicit products that end up hurting us.
Who has ever sued the guy who sold them LSD or who cooked up the crack cocaine that led them into lawless behavior? We don't even sue the manufacturers of illicit fireworks that explode prematurely and maim the people who bought them under-the-counter.
Apparently the thought only occurs to us in cases of abuse of lawful products: tobacco, liquor and firearms. Why? Probably because the people behind the products have lots of money and (unlike their unlawful counterparts) little ability to run away and hide.
Maybe there's one more reason:
We think the products in question (smokes and guns in particular) are bad products, so we don't care if a rash of lawsuits puts them out of business. That's probably why at least 30 jurisdictions are trying to figure out how to make gun makers pay up. And it's probably why there have been no such suits from losers who spent the mortgage money buying lottery tickets (or Iridium stock, for that matter). We don't want anybody shutting down our chance to get rich.
Well, there's one more thing I don't want shut down, and that's the quaint notion that individuals are responsible for the trouble they knowingly get into and the harm they knowingly do.
You disagree with that? Sue me.