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Safety training: how current & future lawsuits may affect your livelihood.

Safety Training: How Current & Future Lawsuits May Affect Your Livelihood

As I write this it is June 10th and two events this week provoke this column. While it does not completely fit the question and answer format I am sure that, in time we would have had a question or two that would justify what I'm about to say anyhow.

In the "Wall Street Journal" of June 7 was an item that reported a Massachusetts court case of interest to gun dealers. In it, a suit was brought against a dealer because he failed to provide safety instruction to someone who purchased a gun from him. Subsequently there was an "accidental" shooting. The plaintiff claimed that she would never have left the gun loaded if she had known of the risk. Well, you and I may have a hard time believing that, but the court and jury didn't and the result was a substantial judgement against the dealer.

Then on Thursday night the CBS Evening News devoted several of their precious minutes to three accidental shootings in Florida in which children were killed or injured. The story wasn't an anti-gun diatribe it was simply journalism and, in fact, one of the fathers of a child who had been killed stated that people should have locks for their guns. There was none of the customary editorializing, in the guise of news, but the message was nonetheless clear. "Guns are evil."

None of us would argue that children need to be protected from their curiosity about firearms and neither would we argue that firearms safety is important. We might disagree with the Massachusetts court on whose responsibility it is, but the case may set a precedent that none of us can ignore. In each instance the stupidity of a gun owner led to tragic consequences and, instead of placing the blame where it truly lies, the court blamed an inanimate object; its maker and seller. For an act that could easily have been prevented by proper education.

But these stories and the growing numbers of product liability suits point out an area in which we are vulnerable. Some of the anti-gunners most powerful arguments include the numbers of people injured or killed "accidentally" with firearms. But almost all of these so-called accidents have their roots in ignorance or stupidity and ignorance is something we can correct. "Stupidity is forever," and there will always be people beyond help, but they do themselves in with automobiles or any of a host of other potentially dangerous products without much ado and I can't bring myself to mourn them. The people who are hurt by another's carelessness are different stories.

Those of us who grew up with guns and have them with us everday have learned or were taught the basic rules of safety. There was a time, a generation or more ago, when guns were an accepted part of life. But that was when we were a more rural nation and hunting was readily available. Guns, hunting and recreational shooting did not have the negative connotation they do now and most of us who were kids in the forties and fifties grew up around them. Today there are legions of kids and adults who have never seen a real gun and whose knowledge comes almost entirely from the horrible misuse of firearms portrayed by TV and movies. Everyone knows that the guy shot on Miami Vice is going to get up and walk away when the camera is turned off and this sort of "harmless" violence distorts things a bit. Few people who have ever seen a real gunshot wound would make that mistake.

If one were to believe the court decision I mentioned he might conclude that we have an obligation to see that someone who buys a gun understands that it is capable of death and damage and I believe that we do, in fact, have an opportunity to reverse the image problem with responsible education. Before you get mad at me think of this. Who is better equipped than the dealer who sells guns to set a good example yet I am frequently confronted with the muzzle of a gun when a clerk hands one to me or by a customer standing next to me. Even though I know that a gun isn't loaded, looking down the barrel makes me uneasy. I don't make a big issue of it, but I gently push the muzzle away. Most people take the hint.

The firearm manufacturers are doing a fine job of providing safety information with their guns. Now they all come with literature that explains the basic point of firearms safety but we all know that people don't always read the instructions before handling a gun. I recently received a new Auto-Mag III for a test article, and when I opened the box the first thing I saw was a red piece of paper with the words, "SAFETY WARNINGS" -READ BEFORE HANDLING THIS FIREARM

There were twelve in all and some of them are the best I've ever seen. For example:

"Your firearm has been equipped with an effective, well designed safety mechanism; however, never rely completely on any safety device as it is not a substitute for cautious gun handling. No safety, however positive, can protect against carelessness, improper usage, or horse-play." Similarly, breakage or malfunction from abuse, incorrect assembly, or unauthorized adjustment can defeat any mechanical device. The best safety mechanism is your own good sense. Use it!"

"When handling any firearm never allow it to point at any part of your body or at another person. No harm will result if you obey this rule, even if an accidental discharge occurs."

"When receiving a gun always open the action and determine that it is unloaded, even if you have seen it done previously."

These rules, and the others the sheet contains, are common sense things that most of us do without conscious thought but the public's ignorance of even the most basic safety considerations can be abysmal. In the liability case the gun owner testified that she would have never left the gun loaded had she known that it might be accidentally fired. Of course we all know what a bunch of crap that is, but there is a whole segment of our society today who does not have the faintest inkling of what guns can do.

Who, better than the dealer, has an opportunity to offer some very basic safety instructions. Even though all the manufacturers are doing it, we all know how people are about reading directions and one-on-one instruction is far more effective. It need not take long an can be often resolved by simply making sure the customer knows that you're willing to answer his or her questions. If there are organized education programs at ranges or through the NRA's programs, customers should be provided with that information as well.

It is logical to expect that lawsuits such as the Massachusetts case, will continue to proliferate and dealers might want to consider protecting themselves by one of several tactics. If it is company policy to ask everyone who purchases a firearm if they have any safety questions this would certainly aid in the defense of a suit and you might want to go a step further and have a simple form printed up with basic safety rules explained. Require the customer to sign a copy and keep it with the 4473 as evidence that you have provided the instruction... or at least the opportunity. This should be as simple as possible but should include the statement, "I have read and understood these safety rules."

At one time handgun purchasers in Dade County Florida were required to sign a simple form that had nine safety related items that they had to acknowledge. These were:

1. "I have been instructed properly in

the loading procedure of the above-described

handgun."

2. "I have been instructed properly in

the unloading procedure of the above-described

handgun."

3. "I fully understand how to operate

the safety of the above-described

handgun."

4. "I fully understand the operation of

the above-described handgun."

5. "I fully understand proper cleaning

procedures, including how important

it is to make sure the handgun is

unloaded for proper cleaning and other

safe-handling procedures that go into

cleaning the above-listed handgun."

6. "I have been fully instructed on the

recoil, noise and other factors such as

muzzle blast, etc., that does happen

upon firing."

7. "I have been shown several different

storage procedures and methods for

keeping the gun in the home,

automobile, place of business."

8. "I have been advised that guns and

ammunition should never be kept in

places easily accessible to children,

and of course that alcohol and guns do

not mix."

9. "It has been recommended to me

that I can receive further instruction at

several recognized ranges in Dade

County and was given the locations."

I suspect that there will be a temptation to carry this even further and include some sort of liability release statement. Lawyers love them, but the truth is that they are no better in defense of a damage suit than a more simple statement. Patrick Squire, an attorney and Vice President of Springfield Armory tells me that all encompassing releases are often thrown out of court anyhow because the lawyers will argue that the person did not understand the rights he was giving up. I think too, that customers might be very reluctant to sign such an instrument and it might even prejudice your defense in the event of a suit. Better to keep things simple and reasonable.

Somewhere, at the heart of most of our laws, is the doctrine of reasonableness. Simplistically it asks, would a reasonable man do, or believe, some particular act or fact. It is often applied in cases where someone has used deadly force. The question is asked, "would a reasonable man believe that his life was in imminent danger and deadly force was required to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself or another?" If the answer to this question is, "Yes," the he or she may be legitimately absolved of criminal blame. If, no the other hand, the answer is "No," hello jailhouse.

That makes perfect sense to me, but let's carry it a step further. Wouldn't a reasonable man agree that children shouldn't be shot and wouldn't some, or most, reasonable men agree that an ignorant buyer should be warned of possible hazards. Open the box of any gun manufactured today and there will be warnings all over the place. Those didn't come to be there accidentally. They came about as the result of a lawsuit in Alaska when a jury awarded a whole lot of money to the estate of someone who was killed when someone else pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger... thinking, he said, that it wouldn't go off. Of course that's ridiculous, but it happened and we're all paying for it right now in terms of higher prices to support product liability insurance premiums.

So some reasonable people might conclude that a dealer does, in fact, have an obligation to warn a customer of the potential hazards. It isn't like it was when I was growing up where almost everyone had a basic knowledge of guns. The need for guns was different too. Now, because of the increasing crime rate, people are deciding that they need a gun for protection. Seeing the court decision, the anti-gun forces may very well seize the opportunity to attack us economically and we might also see hysteria of the kind that spawned the assault rifle bans that have become so popular, as reasonable people mourn the deaths or injuries of those Florida children.

I am sure that all of you believe the old saying. "Guns don't kill people... people kill people" but it hasn't worked before and it won't work now. I keep harking back to the "reasonable" man. The huge majority of gun owners and gun dealers are, above all, reasonable men who want to preserve and protect the things that we hold important. Keeping and bearing arms. So we must out reasonable the anti-gun people. No longer will "my cold dead fingers" elicit much sympathy for our cause. The other reasonable men and women of America have had a bellyful of that sort of argument and it has, I think, created a backlash. Instead, we must show the positives and be willing to work, and work hard, at educating the reasonable public that has not yet developed a position on the issue. And we must be sure to protect both ourselves and our customers by offering information and education. No longer is it safe to take for granted that anyone knows anything about guns.
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Title Annotation:gun stores
Author:Petty, Charles
Publication:Shooting Industry
Article Type:column
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Words:2138
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