Transparency is on the whole a very important thing to exercise when something conceivably could go wrong, yet time and time again it is revealed that corporations deliberately conceal known risks in order to continue selling malfunctioning products. I know we aren't just talking about cranky cats when it comes to the potential millions (or billions) in losses a company could suffer if their secrets got out, but how much worse is it for these same secrets to be painstakingly unearthed after people get hurt from hiding the truth?
The gun manufacturer Remington Arms may have something to contribute to that discussion.
What's Going On With Remington?
After a year-long fight with Remington Arms, the nonprofit group Public Justice secured a court order in late 2014 that made roughly 133,000 corporate documents available to the public.
Organized in a searchable database by Public Justice, a group dedicated to fighting "predatory corporate conduct," the documents illustrate over half a century of internal design documents, bulletins, and safety concerns--many of which were never acknowledged or acted upon by the company.
America's oldest firearm manufacturer, Remington Arms Company was founded in 1816 by Eliphalet Remington. It is the only U.S. company to manufacture both arms and ammunition domestically, and ships its products to over 60 countries worldwide.
With 200 years' worth of manufacturing under its belt, it's understandable that the company may have stumbled now and again in matters of product manufacture. It is to be expected that not everything is going to emerge immaculate from the assembly line; the question is really what a company does when these imperfections are discovered.
Pictured above is the Remington Model 700 rifle. A long-time companion to hunters and sportsmen, this bolt-action rifle is available in over 900 configurations and roughly 40 calibers. It replaced its predecessors, the heavier, more costly Models 721 and 722, in 1948. In 1962, the Model 700's trigger assembly went through a redesign for easier mass production, and from there it launched into wide public popularity. For a further breakdown of the gun's features and selling points, feel free to visit Remington's website, because I'm not really here to sell it.
From 1962 to 2006, Remington rifles made use of the Walker Fire Control Group trigger assembly. In case you haven't read any of our gun-related posts, particularly this piece about a Smith & Wesson AR-15 platform rifle, the fire control group (FCG) is the name for a set of internal elements that govern the motion of the trigger and subsequent engagement of the firearm's hammer. It appears from the subpoenaed documentation that the Walker FCG is known to be problematic, and may result in a misfire when the weapon's safety is disengaged (moved from "safe" to "fire" position) or when a new round is chambered by closing the rifle's bolt. That means the gun could shoot simply from the act of preparing it to do so, not from a trigger pull. According to some reports, even a mild bump to the weapon might be enough to discharge it.
Guns cannot afford to have "hiccups" of this nature. The FCG governs whether an engaged safety will keep a gun from firing; if a shooter can crack off a round from a weapon that supposedly can't shoot at the time, there's obviously a serious problem. Misfires, especially those occurring from the rifle's higher-caliber variants, have high fatality potential for shooters or those around them. There is virtually zero tolerance for error in a firearm's manufacture, and acknowledging this reality makes it all the more puzzling that a prestigious and trusted gun maker would be so willing to place its users at risk.
Does Remington Have a History of Blowing Smoke?
According to the subpoenaed documents, the Model 700 was at several times since its manufacture deemed dangerous to the consuming public. The damning reports go back to the time of the firearm's inception in 1947, and in many instances suggest the need for improvements or design changes to minimize misfire risks. Since its commercialization, the rifle has engendered thousands of misfire complaints and allegations of causing nearly two dozen deaths. A report issued before the gun even went on sale referred to its design as "very dangerous." These recommendations have been disregarded and downplayed by the company.
Remington has routinely dismissed any reported misfire events as "user error," suggesting that the maintenance or use of the firearm by its owner was questionable. Even with something like 7.5 million units in circulation with the potentially flawed Walker FCG, the company officially maintains that shooters are likely to blame. With that said, by 1995 they had drafted a warning document to owners of the Model 700:
"The gun may accidentally fire when you move the safety from the 'safe' position to the 'fire' position, or when you close the bolt."
That quote came from the document trove obtained by Public Justice, because Remington never sent it out to consumers. According to executives, its wording seemed "too strong." Remington also vetoed safety-advisory proposals from its in-house inspectors after their field tests showed the firearms to be faulty with respect to the trigger assembly.
Curiously, despite its assertions of gun owners being to blame, the company paid over $18 million in judgments and settlements to victims of the defective Walker assembly between 1993 and 2006. For a company with an annual revenue of hundreds of millions of dollars, this may seem like a relatively small amount. These settlements and judgments were likely paid to avoid a greater public spectacle, and probably included stipulations that Remington would not have to formally admit fault.
A willing participant in the compilation and collation of the released documents was Montana man Richard Barber, whose son Gus, 9, was fatally shot by a misfiring Model 700 in the year 2000. According to Barber, the family was on a hunting trip and his rifle was entirely clear of obstructions or obvious problems at the time of its accidental discharge. The family sued Remington for Gus's wrongful death in 2002, and Richard Barber has made significant efforts to secure the release of the company's protected documents since that time.
Remington has been vigorously defending itself against injury and wrongful death claims involving the Walker FCG since late 2014, when a class action was filed related to the product malfunction. While its core message accusing gun owners of irresponsible use and maintenance hasn't changed, the gunmaker has agreed to replace the trigger assemblies in the Model 700, as well as several other models with similar designs and layouts.
It's Not Abnormal for Companies to Suppress Reports.
With decades of such reports turning up related to the Model 700, it's hard to believe that Remington just casually "forgot" to do something about the problem.
Public Justice and similar organizations founded to protect consumer rights and expose the skeletons hidden in corporate closets say that this kind of industry obfuscation isn't uncommon at all. Even companies making teddy bears probably stuffed them with asbestos a hundred years ago, and if there's paperwork saying they did, they will perform any number of impressive dance steps to evade disclosing it. Much of the time, corporations are afforded the right to protect their internal memoranda from prying public eyes on the grounds that it might give away proprietary information. It isn't terribly capitalist to ask a company to disseminate trade secrets, and this idea is often manipulated to keep other revelations from consumers and stockholders.
U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith released the protective court orders on the documents in December of 2014. In delivering the court's opinion on the ruling, Judge Smith wrote:
"There is a strong public interest in not allowing the Court's orders to be used as a shield that precludes disclosure of this danger."
Public Justice leveraged the court's ruling to force Remington to disclose the content of every bolt-action rifle claim ever filed. This decision could serve as a helpful precedent in future cases where a company's transparency is in question.
There's (At Least) Two Sides to Every Issue.
The last few years have been especially tense with relation to firearms in the American political arena. Domestic shootings have risen dramatically and have garnered significant public attention in the news. This has led to a vast swell of op-ed pieces about firearms from both sides of the issue. Please believe that I'm not quietly trying to push some gun-control agenda, or say that Remington is inherently a bad company, or even to suggest that the Model 700 is a guaranteed malfunction machine. In fact, I'm not saying anything that would have to be heavily inferred from what I'm writing.
People have trusted and bought Remington firearms for two hundred years. It has a dedicated following, including many, many shooters who maintain that the Model 700 is a superior firearm in any caliber. With modifications, it is often issued to police department sniper teams worldwide, and heavily customized versions are still in use by the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. I have greater faith in the ballistic knowledge of these professionals--and avid amateurs--than I do in my own. I also believe the designers and engineers at Remington wouldn't intentionally design a firearm to shoot unexpectedly; that's inherently the opposite of why knowledgeable experts are hired.
Of further note is that the cumulative number of reported misfire cases amounts to less than .01% of the total number of Model 700 units sold. While the malfunctions should not be simply dismissed as statistical anomaly, and the documents suggest we cannot safely chalk all the incidents up to "user error," it does indicate that the weapon's dangers can likely be mitigated by observing the four rules of gun safety.
I also don't ever want to imply that a company is qualitatively "evil," as the word is typically applied. Companies--businesses--exist to make money. To assign to them human characteristics like compassion or malevolence is a mistake made by the observer; even though they are run and staffed by people, they're people who understand their job is to protect business. That's not to say they can't have humanitarian elements, like companies who donate clean water or shoes to developing nations. But a company that puts human interests entirely before its own solvency is a non-profit organization, and we're not talking about those right now.
The only position I'm taking about Remington at the moment is that their own documentation apparently shows they violated their legal duty to create products that minimize capacity for harm. In terms of products liability law, it is understood that the manufacturer of a product will take precautions to eliminate foreseeable damaging malfunctions before that item hits the market. It is one thing for Remington to make a mistake that they seek to correct rapidly, and another for them to deliberately ignore and cover that mistake up for decades to avoid the cost of rectifying it. If the reports secured by Public Justice are truly as damning as they appear, Remington likely owes compensation to the people hurt by its products, and an explanation to the consuming public at large.