Guns and Jarts

Jarts, outlawed in 1988

The week before Christmas in 1988, our federal government removed Jarts and its generic counterparts from all U.S. store shelves. Under President Reagan’s leadership, the Consumer Product Safety Commission ruled that the product was unsafe, in spite of the National Jart Association’s memorable slogan: “Jarts don’t impale people. People impale people (using Jarts).”

Picnickers returned to horseshoes, or croquet, or other games that weren’t as easy to set up as lawn darts, which required only two plastic hoops as targets and some open space between them.

Those were simpler times — unless you found yourself on the wrong end of a heavy, pointy Jart. Bad Jart juju sent 6,000 people to hospital emergency rooms over a period of eight years — more than half of them were children. That was enough for Washington officials to step in and say, self-evidently, “Enough.”

President Reagan endorsed the ban. He sent his assistant for consumer affairs to meet with a grieving-father-turned-activist, David Snow, who was determined to do “whatever it takes” to have Jarts outlawed. He lobbied the CPSC and won. It wasn’t exactly a pitched battle, because lawn dart manufacturers knew that liability lawsuits would have been the next step.

With guns today, it’s not so easy. Congress has granted gun manufacturers special immunity from lawsuits, including and especially when their products are “used as directed.”

Nobody believes a Republican-led Congress will do anything to curtail any American’s Second Amendment rights. There’s logic to that position, if only from inside the world its adherents inhabit.

It may well be true that our lawmakers cannot — and maybe also should not — fix our society’s gun violence problem. But lawsuits are consumer actions, relying on our courts for a fair hearing before an impartial judge or jury. What’s not to like about this free-enterprise remedy to collusive corruption?

If the United States Congress would simply repeal the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), then gun manufacturers would find themselves staring down the same barrel of liability as virtually every other consumer product. They no longer would be immune to consumer and class action lawsuits. They would be held responsible for their products and protections, the same as those who make swimming pools or cigarettes.

Every product has certain risks associated with it. Companies will naturally gravitate toward those products that involve fewer risks. That’s 18th century economist Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand at work, except when it involves a Trigger Finger, which he failed to account for.

Our lack of documentation makes things like this more difficult to verify, but it doesn’t make them less true. Congress has prohibited the Center for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence since 1996. Proving that a little ignorance is never enough, Congress in 2011 extended its gun-related research ban to include the entire National Institutes of Health.

If you report to your general practitioner that you’ve got an itch on your trigger finger, good luck getting any informed medical care to remedy your condition.

Economic theorists unanimously endorse good information as the most reliable form of consumer advocacy. A well-informed consumer is essential, as seller and buyer seek to maximize both utility and efficiency. This is Economics 101.

But Congress is preventing consumers from getting this information by blocking research grants that are relevant to those buying decisions. Baby strollers are studied, as were Jarts. But guns are off limits.

If Congress rescinded its special protections for gun manufacturers, the free market would be unleashed to achieve its most efficient outcomes.

Gun safety would immediately become the concern of every manufacturer. They would innovate to outdo one another to gain market advantage. Your cell phone more privacy protections than your gun.

The point is that Congress could escape the current hail of political bullets simply by giving consumers what they require and deserve — information and legal recourse.

If it doesn’t have the backbone to give us that for every product Americans can legally buy, the least it can do is give us back our Jarts.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.