For me, these crisp autumn mornings mean the big game hunting season is near. Right now hunters are out sighting in their rifles. The general rifle season for elk, deer, and antelope opens next month. Hunting is a family tradition in Montana, a higher percentage of our population hunts than in any other state, and it is common to see hunting parties of two or three generations in the woods and on the prairies throughout Montana. Unfortunately, a Montana family may lose a loved one to a hunting accident. While any loss of life is tragic, we are doing better with safety training and safer guns.
It’s good to remind ourselves, and our hunting companions, to be extra careful with guns. Those of us who do own and use firearms, whether for hunting or sport shooting, need to make sure that we emphasize safe gun handling practices, for ourselves and those we are shooting with. We need to reinforce the safe handling of guns, remembering to treat each and every weapon as if it were loaded. We have come to place too much trust in the mechanical safeties on our guns, but that trust is misplaced.
Thirteen years ago, here in Montana, nine year Gus Barber lost his life when a hunting rifle that was being unloaded fired unexpectedly. Most of us who heard the news reports at the time were saddened to hear the reports, and it was especially so for parents confronted with the unimaginable pain of losing a child. For those of us who hunt, especially with our kids, it was a sober reminder of the inherent dangers of firearms and the need to reinforce safe gun handling practices.
I’ve talked before about defective products that injure and kill unsuspecting Americans, like the revelations about defective Firestone tires. Our lives, or those of our families or friends can be quickly and severely altered by a defective product.
Unfortunately, the tragedy of the loss of nine year old Gus Barber’s life was caused, in part, by a defective product. While a Remington Model 700 rifle was being unloaded, the rifle’s safety was released, and the gun fired. The gun firing was an unexpected event for Gus’s family. A Remington Model 700 rifle accidently discharging, however, was not unexpected, by Remington.
Over the years thousands of Remington Model 700 rifles have discharged unexpectedly, including many here in Montana. Faced with owner complaints and lawsuits, Remington, making a cost benefit analysis, chose not to recall the rifles. Remington chose instead to issue a statement to Remington rifle owners about proper gun handling. The statement did not alert Remington owners that there was a potential design problem with their rifles that required added attention to safety.
Remington knew it’s Model 700 rifles had problems. They even launched an internal program to develop a safer rifle. And they did develop a safer rifle, but chose not to market it.
We know all this about Remington Model 700 rifles because the victims of the tragedies that have resulted from Remington’s design defect have come to trial lawyers for help. Trial lawyers, and the victims’ concerned family members, like Gus's dad, Rich Barber, have uncovered the internal documents showing Remington’s knowledge of this problem, and of their knowledge of safer alternatives.
One of the legal aspects of the Remington story has received little attention over the years – secrecy agreements in previous litigation prevented much information about the dangers of the rifles from being made public. One of the benefits of being a trial lawyer is that you get to help people. Unfortunately, people usually only seek the assistance of a trial lawyer when they or a member of their family have been severely injured or killed. I have had the good fortune to work with, and become friends with Rich Barber. With Rich’s hard work we have been able to pass legislation in Montana to ban these secrecy agreements. Rich’s purpose was clear and concise - he didn't want another family to face the tragedy his had, simply because knowledge of a dangerous product was hidden from public view by a secrecy agreement. A similar law is needed on the federal level.
While there has been no mandatory recall, Remington is offering to modify the defective mechanism for its models 700, 721, 722, 600, 660, XP-100 and 40-X. You can check the Safety Modification Program at remington.com under the safety tab or call 800-243-9700 for the details of the program. There are still millions of defective rifles out there, and thousands here in Montana, please make sure one of them isn’t your’s or one of your hunting buddy’s.
Gus Barber’s death prompted me years ago to make this yearly plea. I do it because every year I hear from a listener who has had a defective Remington repaired.
Safe gun handling practices are not enough, these rifles are defective - enough is enough, check your guns, tell your family and friends, and just get these Remington rifles fixed. Please don’t wait until another Montana family’s fall hunting tradition turns into yet another preventable tragedy - please do it this season.
This is Al Smith for the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.