Huge trove of Remington rifle documents is made public

The Remington 700 trigger mechanism
Brandon Ancil | CNBC
The Remington 700 trigger mechanism

Owners of Remington's popular Model 700 rifle can now examine for themselves literally millions of pages of internal company documents that have led critics to conclude that the guns are unsafe.

The documents — more than 130,000 files in all — have been assembled in a searchable online database by the advocacy group Public Justice. The organization, which battles against secrecy in the courts, fought successfully last year to make the documents public.

"These documents show the extreme danger of court secrecy," said Public Justice Chairman Arthur Bryant. "They prove that court secrecy kills. Literally."

With millions sold since the design first went on the market in the 1940s, Remington claims its Model 700 is the best-selling bolt-action rifle ever made. But lawsuits have alleged that for decades the company covered up a deadly design flaw that allows the guns to fire without the trigger being pulled, resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. The company has denied the allegations.

The documents show Remington engineers wrestling with what they called a "very dangerous" situation as early as 1947 — before the guns went on sale. Company officials eventually decided that a design change was not worth the added cost, a conclusion they would reach again and again.

By 1995, with complaints "constantly increasing," the company drafted a warning notice to customers.

"The gun may accidentally fire when you move the safety from the 'safe' position to the 'fire' position, or when you close the bolt," the proposed notice read. Company officials ultimately rejected the warning as "too strong," and never sent it out. The company also decided against multiple internal proposals over the years to recall the guns.

In public statements, Remington has steadfastly maintained that the guns are safe and free of defects. But in 2014, while still maintaining the guns are safe, the company agreed in a nationwide class action settlement to replace the triggers in some 7 million guns — including the Model 700 and a dozen other firearms with similar designs — in hopes of putting the matter behind itself once and for all. A federal judge in Kansas City has set this Friday as the deadline for objections to the settlement, with a hearing on final approval scheduled for Feb. 14.

Remington attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the new database.

The vast majority of the documents were compiled by Richard Barber, a Montana man whose 9-year-old son was killed when he says a Remington 700 rifle fired unexpectedly during a family hunting trip in 2000. The Barber family settled a wrongful death suit against the company in 2002.

"This information is a living memorial to my son, Gus," Barber said in an interview. "I hope these educational resources will break the cycle of injury and death."

Many of the documents have been featured in CNBC's reporting on the issue, including a 2010 documentary and a follow-up investigation last year. Most were turned over by the company during the discovery phase of various lawsuits going back decades.

For years, Barber was unable to release most of the documents because of court-imposed protective orders — a common feature in product liability cases meant to allow companies to enter into legal settlements without revealing trade secrets and other proprietary information.

"This information has been buried while people profit from the pain and suffering of families like mine," Barber said.

Critics, including Public Justice, say companies routinely abuse protective orders in order to hide information about dangerous products from the public.

But the judge in the Remington class action case denied a routine joint motion by the company and plaintiffs for a protective order that would have kept the documents under wraps.

"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," wrote U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith on Dec. 3, 2014.

The surprise ruling created an opening for Public Justice to persuade Remington to relinquish every protective order in every bolt-action rifle case ever filed, rather than risk blowing up the class action settlement.

The organization hopes this case will make parties in other cases less likely to agree to keep important information secret in the future.

"Hopefully," Bryant said, "it will make plaintiffs, their lawyers, and judges understand why they cannot and should not agree to unjustified court secrecy in the future."

Barber says turning the documents over to the public is a fitting end to his 16-year quest for the truth about the rifles.

"This is how I intend to get my life back," he said.