Democracy's death? Here's the smoking gun

web posted December 1998

Can't convince twelve honest people that you didn't know smoking was bad for you, even though it was well known 100 years ago that it is? Write your attorney general!

Think they make guns that shoot bullets too easily with those handy trigger thingies? Call up the mayor!

Get the lawyers 'cause we're goin' to court!

For a people who claim to be on the watch for any erosion of their freedoms, Americans -- and to a lesser extent Canadians -- have been remarkably silent about some of the more notable subversions of democracy this century. In fact, there's a good chance they even agree with those subversions.

Claiming to be acting for the betterment of society, a warning flag if I ever heard one, attorney generals from eight American states announced last month a US$206 billion deal with the tobacco companies to settle all suits launched by the states. Along with the really big pile of money, the states also won concessions from the companies which will restrict advertising and marketing for a legal and still quite popular product.

Imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, so a few Big Mother mayors, Chicago's Richard Daley and New Orleans' Marc Morial, decided to use the same tactics and launched lawsuits against firearms manufacturers, dealers and pawn shops.

Morial's lawsuit is a product liability suit, essentially arguing that guns should be made safer by manufacturers by installing them with adequate safety devices, in the bizarre belief that criminals and children won't have an easy time firing them. The suit asks for the costs involved in treating gun related health care costs and policing. Daley, on the other hand, likes those big S's with the two lines down the middle. He's asking for $433 million from gun shops, manufacturers and distributors.

It might get even worse for the gun manufacturers. Rumours abound that 60 cities are planning to launch suits next year...all on the same day. Talk about pulling the trigger.

"Good," you might be thinking to yourself. "It's about time that society recoups the cost from cigarettes and guns. If government won't do anything about them, the court system may as well do it."

Well, if that's the thought crossing your mind, you're likely the same type of person that can't see the forest for the trees.

While you may think that cigarettes and guns, two of my more favourite things by the way, are a problem that must be dealt with, relying on the courts is more dangerous than smoking with a loaded gun to your head.

The problem with going the route of lawsuits is that politicians and bureaucrats are essentially avoiding democratic debate on tobacco and firearms to achieve in court what they seem unable to do in state legislatures and Congress. It's a pretty hard sell to Americans of the need for more taxes and stricter regulation, but if you launch a lawsuit you may only have to convince twelve of your peers.

So which is the bigger danger? Tobacco or the loss of your democratic right to be heard?

Using the courts to achieve what your fellow citizens refuse to support means the eventual end of democracy. It means forcing consumers, and not the tobacco and gun companies, to pay taxes that they do not support. It means creating a whole new level of bureaucracy that is accountable only to those who pay the billable hours.

And doesn't the idea of giving government a whole new revenue stream frighten you just a little? It's not like they'd stop at tobacco and guns. Need to fill those coffers? A campaign and lawsuit on behalf of fat people would end with taxes on any food deemed unhealthy, giving soy farmers the monopoly on bland food and a truck load of cash for the government. Alcohol? How about cars that travel faster than the speed limit? Friend of all trial lawyers Ralph Nader must be salivating.

The fact of the matter is that the average citizen doesn't feel the need for higher tobacco taxes or stricter regulation of firearms. They've made that clear at the polls and they've made it clear as members of juries in the individual cases against tobacco companies. Some people just don't give a damn about the average citizen though.

It's ultimately up to you. Support public policy that you had a part in -- even if you only cast a ballot for someone -- or accept public policy that was dreamed up by a lawyer, agreed to by a judge, and paid for by you.

Me? I've got guns and a pack of cigarettes...and I'm willing to use them.

Thanks for reading,

Gord Gekko

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