Why Guns Can Only Be Recalled by Manufacturer

Internal company documents show that at least twice, the Remington Arms Company considered a nationwide recall of its popular 700 series rifles, but decided against it despite thousands of complaints and dozens of lawsuits over inadvertent discharges.

Manufacturers of most other products do not have the authority to make that decision on their own, but guns hold a special place in American law, according to Dallas attorney Jeffrey Hightower, who has tried multiple lawsuits against Remington.

“Remington polices itself,” said Hightower. “The gun industry polices itself.”

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has broad authority to order most manufacturers to recall products deemed to be unsafe, regardless of whether there has been a single incident or complaint. The CPSC has even demanded recalls of weapons such as air rifles and crossbows for problems that appear strikingly similar to the alleged issue with the Remington 700.

In January, the CPSC announced a recall of 300 rifle crossbows distributed by Master Cutlery of Secaucus, New Jersey, even though no incidents or injuries had been reported. The CPSC said the recall was done in cooperation with the firm, after the agency found that in many cases, “when the safety mechanism is moved to the fire position, the crossbow will automatically discharge on its own.” CNBC found a dozen recalls of crossbows and air rifles since 1979 for similar reasons.

But a federal law passed soon after the creation of the CPSC in the 1970s specifically bars the agency from setting safety standards for firearms.

“The Consumer Product Safety Commission shall make no ruling or order that restricts the manufacture or sale of firearms, fire-arms ammunition, or components of firearms ammunition,” the law says.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms licenses gun manufacturers, but the agency has no authority to recall defective firearms, according to a spokesman.

The issue is crucial to gun rights advocates, who see the prospect of a government-mandated firearm recall as an infringement on their rights under the second amendment.

Those advocates include Montana contractor Rich Barber, who insists he does not support government involvement in the issue, even though he says a defective Remington 700 killed his nine-year-old son. Barber, who is still an avid shooter, says he bases his position on constitutional as well as practical concerns.

“I am fearful that if the government got involved in this, that they would put such stringent standards on firearms, they’d be so safe, they wouldn’t work,” Barber said.

But for decades, others have tried to change the law.

While some have sought to give the CPSC authority over guns, the most recent legislation, the Firearms Safety and Consumer Protection Act of 2003, would have authorized the Justice Department to regulate guns “in order to reduce or prevent unreasonable risk of injury.”

Several organizations backed the bill, including the Consumer Federation of America; but it died in committee.

The 700 series, the most popular bolt action rifle in the world, is explored in a CNBC Original Documentary, “Remington Under Fire: A CNBC Investigation,” premiering Wednesday, October 20 at 9pm ET/PT.