More Woes Emerge Over Remington Rifles
CNBC Senior Correspondent
The company has also challenged the credibility of Tom Butters, suggesting he is an expert for hire who has testified against a number of gun companies.
However, when Rock Center asked Remington to offer an expert of its own to counter Butters’ claims of an unsafe design, the company declined.
Butters says one of the most troubling aspects of the issue is that the guns can fire with the safety on, which is exactly what Russell Chaney of Pryor, Oklahoma says happened to him in 1984 while he was out on a boat, duck hunting with friends.
“I had my gun setting up on a bench. Kind of a seat,” he says.
He says as the gun slipped off the seat of the boat. As he tried to grab it, his hand slipped over the gun’s barrel. Just then, the butt of the gun hit the bottom of the boat. The gun went off, and blew off two of Chaney’s fingers.
A retired police officer, Chaney has been around guns his whole life and says he had never seen anything like it. Wondering how his gun could go off with the safety on, he sent it to an independent lab for testing.
“They duplicated the discharge, just like it happened, just like we did,” he says.
In its report, obtained by Rock Center, the Oklahoma forensic lab said it took the gun "with the safety off and no pressure on the trigger" and dropped it butt first.
"(T)he weapon discharged," the report says.
The test was then repeated with the safety on.
"(T)he weapon discharged again."
The report notes that in both tests, “the hammer had disengaged from the sear and had struck the firing pin, a condition which should only exist when the trigger is pulled."
So Chaney decided to write a letter to Remington.
“I was involved in a hunting accident because my gun goes off on safety when bumped on the butt,” he wrote. “Would Remington be interested in this gun for research?"
Chaney says he wrote the letter with one purpose in mind.
“I didn't want this to happen to somebody else.”
Remington agreed to look at the gun, but the letter the company sent back offered a much different conclusion than the independent lab.
"(T)he fire control, as received, showed no defective parts which could have caused the incident although the trigger was loose," Remington wrote, adding "(T)he firearm was repeatedly bounced on the butt from as high as thirty (30) inches without any discharge."
“I don't believe what they wrote to me in saying that it wouldn't go off,” Chaney says.
Asked if he thinks Remington was lying to him, Chaney says, “Well, I believe they probably were.”
Chaney decided not to sue Remington, but says he is troubled by the fact that he alerted them more than 25 years ago, yet incidents continued.
“Just kinda sad that these people are injured or killed,” he says, “after I know that they knew about the problem.”
Determining just how many others complained, though, is not easy.
While a source close to the company insists Remington keeps records of every complaint, court testimony shows the company began destroying at least some records in the 1980s. But before that change, Remington had compiled a list of 119 complaints over a ten-year period.
Records or not, the problems continued.
A five-month investigation by Rock Center has uncovered 125 incidents—including 75 injuries and seven deaths—all linked to alleged malfunctions of the Common Fire Control since 1973.
In Alaska, Paul Flynn was left quadriplegic when his Remington went off, and 15-year-old Philip Kensinger was shot in the face.
But many gun enthusiasts swear by their Remingtons. Jack Burch runs an Olympic training center outside Kerrville, Texas. He says Remington should alert the public if there's a problem. But over the past 11 years he says he has never seen any evidence the Remingtons are flawed.
“We see thousands of them come through here,” he says. “Kids shooting them, everybody. Just not an issue.”
Asked why more users are not aware of the customer complaints, Burch says, “I'm suspecting because it's not as common as people would like to think it is. It’s just not a pervasive problem that we see. Not only in this range, but I talk to ranges all over the state.”
The Ten Commandments of Firearm Safety
Remington does include all kinds of warnings with every gun it sells, including what the company calls "The Ten Commandments of Firearm Safety."
By the book, Russell Chaney and Justen Yerger violated at least two, including the first commandment, "always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction,” and the third, "don't rely on your gun's safety."
But critics say that only proves that even the most experienced shooter isn't perfect, and the design of the CFC should take that into account. Yet Remington has turned down a number of patented design changes, offered from inside and outside the company. They include a mechanism patented by Tom Butters and a colleague aimed at keeping the guns from going off unless the trigger is pulled.
In court cases, Remington has contended that Butters’ criticism of Remington’s fire control is motivated by a desire to make money from his alternative design, which Butters denies.
“Well, if I were all that interested in pushing the design I would have protected it,” Butters says. Instead, he allowed the patent to expire.
Remington contends the design change is unnecessary because the theory advanced by Butters and others that debris can compromise the CFC is implausible. The company maintains its engineers have never been able to duplicate the problem, and one of Remington’s paid consultants has called the debris theory “a mythical allegation.”
But documents from the 1950s paint a different picture.
In 1957, when a gun shop owner in Michigan wrote to complain about a customer's gun going off with the safety on, he mentioned "gunsmiths around here have told us this is a rather common occurrence and that the guns are unsafe."
Remington responded the incident was "most unusual."
But just a year later, in a 1958 internal memo, Remington engineers identified the problem, that "might be aggravated by dirt or foreign matter in the fire control.”
And in 1985, when an insurance adjuster asked whether there were any problems with the model 1100 shotgun, Remington responded that it "had no problem," even though we found at the time of that letter, Remington had already faced a dozen lawsuits involving that model alone.
“As a professional engineer, my first canon of ethics reads, ‘I will hold the public safety paramount in each professional act,’" Tom Butters says. “I don't believe they did that.”
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