Self-Defense and the Law: Eight Cases, Part 1 of 2

Note thumb safety on Smith & Wesson Military & Police…

Note thumb safety on Smith & Wesson Military & Police .45.

Gun manufacturers – and users – still face a flood of lawsuits, many of them unmeritorious. That fact is reflected in modern gun design…and there are lessons that end-users can learn from this. Eight actual cases illustrate the points under discussion.

As I write this, a new Administration is in place, one that is distinctly unfriendly to gun owners and gun manufacturers, and also seen by some as friendly to “plaintiff’s bar.” This administration will be making some appointments to the Supreme Court, and a great many appointments to less important but still very influential benches on the Federal appellate courts. It is a time in which to be particularly careful of issues that could involve allegations of negligence in regard to firearms.

I’ve just returned from the SHOT Show. The Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation is the largest firearms industry trade show in the world. It is the premier venue for introduction of new firearms products. Not surprisingly, an awareness of civil liability potential was apparent to anyone looking at the design features manufacturers were installing in some of their new products.

How Court Accusations Impact Design
Have you noticed the trend toward double action only (DAO) designs, in both revolvers and auto pistols, in recent years? Forty years ago, about the only double action revolver you get was the Smith & Wesson Centennial series, and that was so unpopular that S&W discontinued it in the early 1970s.

However, as time went on, negligence lawsuits against both gun-makers and gun-users began to increase exponentially. By the end of the 1980s, police departments from Los Angeles to Miami to New York City were converting their service revolvers to double action only. This was done for two reasons. One was that there were cases of fatal accidental discharges due to the “hair trigger effect” of cocked revolvers. The other was that the potential for the gun being cocked allowed false allegations of such negligence.

In Case One, an armed citizen with a carry permit drew a Colt revolver and cocked it as a junkie with a club came toward him. He accidentally discharged the lightened trigger under stress, killing his assailant. The judge at his trial allowed no discussion of justifiability, on the principle that the shot had been fired accidentally and there was no such thing as a justifiable accident. The jury convicted him of Depraved Murder. After learning what had been kept from them, some of those jurors later circulated a petition to get him a new trial, but it was too late. An appeals court reduced the conviction to Manslaughter, but the citizen in question still served hard time.

sdl_01Note thumb safety on Springfield Armory XD45.

In Case Two, a police officer used his issue Smith & Wesson service revolver to shoot and kill a man who was trying to pull a gun on him and his partner. The shooting triggered a race riot, and a prosecutor looking to appease the mob charged the officer with Manslaughter, presenting the theory that he had cocked the gun and set the stage for a negligent, fatal discharge. Fourteen months later, after the defense team proved he had fired deliberately, double action, in justifiable defense of himself and his partner, the jury acquitted him of all charges. Nonetheless, the city ordered all its revolvers converted to double action only in the interim. Today, following the double action only rule, that city issues Glock pistols, which have long since been defined as double action only by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. That city police department’s Glocks, last I knew, were all issued with extra-heavy eight pound trigger systems.

By 1990, S&W had seen the handwriting on the wall, and – largely at the urging of Harris’ own Wiley Clapp – reintroduced the DAO Centennial revolver. It is today their single bestseller in their broad line of handguns. The company’s current best-selling police pistol is the Military & Police: a “double action only,” striker-fired semiautomatic.

Colt had been aware of the problem, too. The following appears in a 1994 Colt owner’s manual for their double action revolvers: “NEVER LEAVE REVOLVER COCKED READY TO FIRE as this condition is extremely dangerous, and revolver could easily be accidentally discharged, causing injury, death, or damage to property.” The words, and the emphasis in caps, are Colt’s. Even if the revolver in a given case was produced by a different manufacturer, that firm warning from what was once the world’s largest manufacturer of revolvers is damn sure going to have some weight in a court of law.

Load Comments