»  National Review Online

September 12, 2000

   First Thing We Do …


You won't get much argument from me if you assert that the strongest reason for wanting a Republican administration in office is to prevent the U.S. Supreme Court being taken over by leftist ideologues. And the next strongest reason is …?

Well, if you asked me on a different day I might give you a different answer, but in my current frame of mind I would say: tort reform. This is because I just had a conversation that shook me somewhat. I can't say it opened my eyes to something I didn't know. We all know this stuff; but direct contact with someone at the receiving end of it brings it front and center.

This conversation arose from a search for cheap ammunition. Real ammunition that is, for an actual gun — we are out of metaphor-land here. Readers of NRO Weekend will know that I have recently become the proud, lawful owner of a 9mm handgun. Now, along with the capital expense of actually buying a weapon, gun ownership also involves the current expense of purchasing ammunition at regular intervals. I am the original Stingy Brit you have heard about in U.S. folklore and read about in Tom Wolfe, so as soon as I started going to ranges and firing my gun, I set my mind to finding the cheapest way to buy bullets for it. My county Yellow Pages listed half a dozen gun stores, so I did a tour of them to compare prices.

The second store on my list was Depot Fire Arms Inc., of Huntington Station, Long Island. When I went in there, however, there were no guns to be seen, just a gentleman in late middle age sitting at a desk in a cluttered office. He explained to me that the Yellow Pages listing was out of date. He was getting out of the gun business.

"It's the insurance," he explained. "I just can't handle it. I used to have a nice little sideline selling sporting guns and equipment — for skeet and trap shooting, mainly. Then some halfwit cracker down in Arkansas shot his foot off while cleaning his gun. He sued everone he could think of — the manufacturer, the distributor, the store where he bought the damn thing. And the fool courts let him get away with it. In 1992 my insurance was $12,000 a year. Last year they asked for $55,000, for identical coverage. I said, that's it."

He went on to tell me that the retailing of guns and ammunition was increasingly difficult because of soaring insurance premiums and uncertainty about further legal attacks. The largest gun retailer on Long Island, Edelman's, had put up their shutters for just those reasons. There was still a scattering of gun stores, generally one in every large township, but they were thinning out.

"Ten years from now, there will be no gun stores on Long Island," he predicted. "And since the only way to get to any other part of the state is via New York City or Connecticut, and you need a sheaf of extra permits (federal ones, in the case of Connecticut) to transport guns in and out of either, that will close down gun ownership on the Island. Sooner or later, they'll close it down all over. The lawyers, the insurance companies — they'll take care of it. No legislation necessary."

No legislation necessary. Just a judge with a modern law-school education (Bill Clinton used to teach law school), a gullible low-IQ jury, and an out-of-control Trial Lawyers' Association. The most elementary of our liberties — First Amendment, Second Amendment — are now hostage to avaricious attorneys and ideology-addled law school professors. Legislators are slipping into the background; the courts are making our laws. As I said, none of this is news to National Review readers, but when you meet it face-on it leaves a powerful impression. This is the ethos of America in the new millennium: if you don't like what someone is doing, beggar him with litigation.

Another instance showed up last week in Idaho, when the leader of the Aryan Nations white-supremacist group was ordered to pay $5.1 million in punitive and compensatory damages to two people who were run off the road and shot at by guards outside the AN compound. The guards, who had mistaken the plaintiffs' truck backfire for a gunshot, are currently serving stiff prison sentences for the assault (in which nobody was seriously hurt — this is one of those million-dollars-per-bruise judgments). The civil lawsuit was brought on the plaintiff's behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a far-left activist group, explicitly as a means of destroying Aryan Nations. Now, the AN folk are a bunch of yahoos; but when they break the law, the law can deal with them, as is proved by the incarceration of the guards in this case. To bring a civil action with the expressed aim of bankrupting AN is an act of plain malice, and ought not be countenanced by a court system committed to our ancient liberties. If the people of Idaho do not want to share their state with a bunch of beery tattooed wackos preaching race hate, let them petition their legislators to pass appropriate prohibitory laws.

What relevance has any of this to our coming elections? Well, as Governor of Texas, George W. Bush has distinguished himself by vigorous action against the abuses of tort law. By the end of the Texas legislature's first session under his governorship, Bush had signed into law seven major bills curtailing those abuses. His personal commitment to the issue is illustrated in a story well-known in Texas politics and retailed earlier this year in the Washington Post. It is one of the better "Dubya" stories, endearing as well as encouraging.

Bush walked in on a meeting to discuss one of those bills, then in draft form. The chief spokesman for the trial lawyers, Mike Gallagher of Houston, was present and took the opportunity to lobby the governor.

"You know, Governor," Gallagher told Bush, "I represent a dear friend of yours from West Texas, a gentleman by the name of Bobby Holt."

"Is that right, Mike?" Bush responded.

"Yes," Gallagher said. "In fact, we're discussing something that's near and dear to Bobby Holt's heart, and that is the law of joint and several liability."

The governor, looking straight into Gallagher's eyes, said: "You know, Mike, I've known Bobby Holt all my life. Grew up with Bobby Holt. One of my warmest, closest personal friends. "

Bush paused, then added: "[Expletive] Bobby Holt."

Oh, by the way: we Brits may be cheap, but never let it be said that we are unwilling to share the wisdom acquired in our scavengings. The cheapest place to buy ammunition is — of course! — on the Internet. That is, until the Trial Lawyer's Association figures out a way to close them down.