Critic says Remington still hiding the truth about its rifles

A shooter takes aim with a Remington Model 700 SPS Varmint rifle at the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Jan. 28, 2013.
Joel Page | Reuters
A shooter takes aim with a Remington Model 700 SPS Varmint rifle at the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Jan. 28, 2013.

The Montana man whose nearly 15-year search for answers about the death of his son paved the way for a nationwide class action settlement with the Remington Arms Co. says the gun maker still is not coming clean. So now, Richard Barber says he is launching a new push to "inform and educate the public" about one of the most popular firearms in the world, and his claim that the guns can fire without the trigger being pulled.

Barber's 9-year-old son Gus was killed during a family hunting trip in 2000 when a Remington Model 700 rifle went off as the boy's mother was unloading it. At the worst possible moment, Gus had run behind a horse trailer and into the path of the bullet. Barbara Barber has consistently maintained that her hand was nowhere near the trigger.

Richard Barber says he eventually found thousands of customer complaints and internal documents that suggest Remington had known for decades about an alleged design flaw in the gun's firing mechanism but did nothing about it despite dozens of deaths and injuries. Allegations of the defect and a cover up—both of which Remington has steadfastly denied—were the subject of the 2010 documentary "Remington Under Fire: A CNBC Investigation."

"The Model 700, including its trigger mechanism, has been free of any defect since it was first produced," Remington told CNBC in 2010. "And, despite any careless reporting to the contrary, the gun's use by millions of Americans has proven it to be a safe, trusted and reliable rifle."

Last month, a federal judge in Missouri tentatively approved a nationwide settlement in which Remington agreed to replace the triggers on more than 7 million rifles equipped with what has become known as the Walker Fire Control—the same mechanism that was in the Barbers' rifle. But the company still maintains the guns are safe, and has said it is settling the case to put an end to lengthy litigation. Barber says that stance is part of the reason he feels the need to speak out again.

"I wholeheartedly support the provisions in the class settlement in replacing the triggers," Barber told CNBC in an interview Monday. As a result, he said, he will not formally object to the tentative settlement. Nonetheless, he said, "Remington's statements (following the CNBC program in 2010) potentially constitute a fraud that not only endangered the public, but resulted in loss of life."

Remington settlement triggers questions
Remington settlement triggers questions   

Barber said he is concerned that Remington's continued defense of the gun, as well as the company's decision at the same time to launch a recall of a much smaller group of Model 700 rifles with a different firing mechanism, could either confuse customers or lull them into complacency.

"No deal is perfect," he said, acknowledging that the company will likely never agree there is a problem.

"Nothing can force them to do that," he said.

Barber says that makes it all the more important for him to continue speaking out as well as defending his reputation. Part of that effort was on display in Seattle on Monday, where Barber's attorney, Richard Ramler, argued that a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should reinstate a defamation suit Barber filed against Remington after the company's response to the 2010 CNBC documentary.

New court developments from Seattle

The response, which included a lengthy video and a dedicated website that the company has since taken down, claimed that the Barber rifle "had been modified in multiple ways" and "was heavily rusted."

In fact, experts from both sides in the Barbers' wrongful death claim against the company conducted a joint examination of the gun in 2000, about a month after the incident. Notes of the examination from both plaintiff and defense experts, reviewed by CNBC, say there was rust on the barrel of the gun—far from the trigger. And other experts said the only adjustment reported in the inspection would have made the gun harder to fire, not easier.

Barber claims Remington raised the allegations of a poorly maintained rifle in order to discredit him, his statements in the CNBC program and the reputation he had developed as a firearms safety expert.

"They attacked Mr. Barber the same way a trial lawyer attacks an expert witness," Ramler argued in court.

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But an attorney for Remington, James Brian Vogts, argued the company was merely repeating statements it had made while defending the wrongful death case, and that a lower court had correctly ruled that Barber had signed away any future claims relating to Gus Barber's death as part of the 2002 settlement in that case.

"Remington did not initiate this conversation in 2010," Vogts said in court, noting that Barber had chosen to go on national television to talk about the rifles. "Remington simply responded as it had a right to do," Vogts said.

But Barber says there is more to it than that.

"In the course of defending yourself, you are obligated to tell the truth," he said. "This is solely about who told the truth and who lied to the public in 2010."

Vogts declined to comment beyond his arguments in court, citing a Remington policy not to discuss ongoing litigation. The appeals court has multiple options including letting the dismissal stand, reinstating the defamation suit, or referring it to the state supreme court in Montana for further review.

Barber says the lawsuit is just a small part of a much bigger picture.

"The truth directly bears on the safety of the public," he said, something he said was brought home to him in recent weeks when he says he learned of three incidents involving children—one fatal—linked to inadvertent discharges of Remington rifles during this past hunting season.

"I've drawn a line in the sand," Barber said, "and this seals the deal."

Correction: Richard Barber says he recently learned of three firearm incidents involving children, one of which was fatal. That fact was misstated in an earlier version of this article.