Category Archives: Gun industry

Think Progress: The gun industry watched what happened to the tobacco industry and took notice


A very compelling read from Think Progress about how the gun industry watched regulators and the legal justice system cratered Big Tobacco, prompting the gun industry to take steps to make sure the same thing couldn’t happen to it.

Big Tobacco, while still vastly wealthy, is not nearly the political powerhouse that it was 25 years ago. The adult smoking rate has dropped from 42 percent to 17 percent in the U.S. over the past 50 years, smoking advertising has been seriously curtailed and few workplaces allow smoking anymore. Two things helped destroy Big Tobacco’s political influence — regulations and lawsuits. Big Tobacco fought, which minimal success (some, but not much), smoking bans, first on airplanes (a battle the industry ultimately lost) and then in restaurants and then in bars.  Now, more than 30 states have total smoking bans, another handful of states have smoking bans in restaurants and even in those states without smoking bans, most major cities have banned smoking in bars and restaurants.


In the courtrooms, Big Tobacco really got spanked. The industry won lawsuit after lawsuit for years until through the discovery process in many of these lawsuits, internal industry documents were released showing that Big Tobacco absolutely knew since the 1950s that cigarettes caused cancer and were physically addictive and showed that for decades, the industry has been trying to market to teenagers.

Because of the release of these documents, Big Tobacco actually started losing lawsuits. A bunch of state’s attorneys general filed suit because of the costs of smoking to their Medicaid programs, and rather than fight these lawsuits and potentially lose, Big Tobacco agreed to the $280 billion Master Settlement agreement in 1998. Today, the tobacco industry continues to get nailed with lawsuits, a lot of them in Florida, costing them millions in legal fees and eventual settlements (though the industry is well-known for dragging these settlements out for years through appeals, people have received multi-million jury settlements.).


The gun industry sat back and watched and took action to make sure the same thing couldn’t happen to it. The gun industry was facing similar types of class-action lawsuits which eventually crippled Big Tobacco politically.

From the Think Progress article:

Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, told ThinkProgress that the NRA was “very afraid of the parallel between gun litigation and tobacco litigation, so it preempted that.” Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — the secretive free-market lobbying group that brings together conservative politicians and major corporate interests including the tobacco and gun lobbies — it pushed a “Defense of Free Market and Public Safety Resolution” to hurt Smith & Wesson’s ability to sell to law enforcement.

“ALEC helped to try to punish the one component of the industry that agreed to these measures,” Graves recalled, discouraging local police “from buying guns from Smith & Wesson — for daring to go along with safety [measures] designed to keep kids safe.”

When the NRA’s preferred candidate, George W. Bush, was inaugurated in January 2001, his new HUD secretary Mel Martinez quickly ended the department’s involvement in the lawsuits (the NRA strongly endorsed him three years later in his campaign for U.S. Senate in Florida). ALEC and the NRA worked at the same time to successfully encourage many states to prohibit local lawsuits against the gun and ammo industries.

Next, the NRA and its Congressional allies set about eliminating the threat of state or local action, once and for all. In 2005, Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which effectively shielded the gun industry from legal liability when their products are used in criminal and unlawful activities.

So, the gun industry made sure to get legislation passed to make sure something like the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement or the Engle case in Florida could ever happen to it.

From the article:

A decade later, the law has been used to stop virtually all efforts to hold gun companies liable in court.

“I think that, had the really powerful litigation run its course, we would have had the same success on guns” as on tobacco, Graves said. “That tobacco litigation was historic… They were able to make some substantial progress and change the future — having information out there, showing how evilly the tobacco companies were behaving. So there was an effort to stop that for guns, which have huge number of deaths and injuries. We haven’t seen the same progress as you would have had these been allowed to go forward. ”

But the industry didn’t stop there. The gun industry also through legislation clamped down on research into gun violence. It was scientific research done by the Centers for Disease Control that helped break Big Tobacco’s power.

From the article:

Thanks to a 1996 law, pushed by the NRA and one of its life members, then-Rep. Jay Dickey (R-AR), the federal government does not do the same kind of in-depth research on gun violence and its prevention. The “Dickey Amendment” stipulated that no funds “made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” A 2012 appropriations law put similar restrictions on NIH funding for that year.

Though the NRA claims this was not its intent, the effect of the amendment was not simply that the CDC did not advocate for gun control, it stopped the Centers from doing almost any research on gun violence. And, according to a 2011 New York Times story, before the few remaining firearm-related studies funded by the CDC get published, the NRA gets a heads up “as a courtesy.”

Ted Alcorn, research director at Everytown for Gun Safety, told ThinkProgress in an email that his organization’s research has found that “after the gun lobby’s attacks on the Centers for Disease Control in the mid-1990s, the agency’s funding for public health research on gun violence fell more than 95 percent and publications in the field dried up.” Though groups like Everytown have worked to fill the gap, the lack of federal research has made progress on gun safety even more challenging.

The article also points out that while most doctors will talk to patients about their smoking, laws are being passed (Florida) prohibiting doctors from asking patients if they have a gun in the house. And it points out that while the majority of states and vast majority of cities have smoking bans, more and more states are passing laws allowing the open carrying of guns. Really, there’s never been a better time than now to be a gun owner in the U.S.

Thanks, unfortunately, to the lessons learned by the gun industry while watching the gutting of the tobacco industry’s political power.