Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Who is responsible for the danger of tools?

If you leave a jar of plutonium pellets in the office fridge, labeled “bacon bits”, and someone dies from it, you would be guilty even if the victim committed the lesser crime of stealing your property. Likewise if you leave a gun in a day care playroom, and a child kills another child, then you are guilty of that. Building owners could be held responsible for accidents involving poor conditions, such as a missing stair. In general, a person may be held responsible for the dangerous things they own or unleash even if they did not use them specifically as weapons.

When it comes to manufacturer’s liability, two opposing forces – coming from lawsuits on the one hand, and liability releases on the other hand – creates a very fine-grained madness. There could be a known hazard from using a cutting tool incorrectly, which is not specific to the brand, and essentially comes down to the fact that knives are sharp. The company protects itself with paragraphs of fine print, people don’t read it, and when someone gets hurt, lawyers argue over whether the warnings constitute a contract and whether the contract applies to the case. It is a very silly situation we have created.

I think these things should not be based on a contract in the first place. In other words, the responsibility should not be decided based on fine print. It does not make sense that release clauses would always absolve the manufacturer. It also does not make sense that the lack of fine print would make manufacturers responsible beyond reason – such as teaching people how to use knives and all the injuries people might get from them.

I was brought into this line of thought from considering the Rittenhouse case in August 2020. He brought a gun intentionally to a protest, was accosted and threatened, then killed two people in “defense”. The law is on his side, but the law is absurd in the sense that the same defense can be used to escape responsibility for intentionally provoking deadly violence. The fact that a gun was involved (the “tool”) is not incidental, because the gun was the key difference between life and death. It’s hard to see any other outcome when a person brings deadly force into a high-tension situation, even if he claims it is not intentional. Yet, like the product warning labels, the laws break down the scene myopically into discrete events. The first event is buying a gun, which was legal. The second event was bringing it to a protest, which is legal. The third event was shooting in self defense, which is also legal. But this legal logic does not put together the sequence of events into a story. The common sense observation of the story is that Rittenhouse provoked deadly violence: had he not come with a gun, those people would not have died.

Another news story involved a racist white man who went with a gun to his black neighbor’s house, started an argument, and provoked a fight. Then he shot the unarmed neighbor, claiming (successfully!) that it was in self defense. He was not found guilty because each of his discrete actions, looked at in isolation, was legal.

The myopia of legally separating a story into discrete, unlinked events like this is tied to the failure of recognizing the use of an inherently dangerous tool. It is the tool that connects the sequence of events; without the gun, it would make more sense to treat the events as discrete.

Consider that there are proposals (and perhaps laws, somewhere) making the buyer or seller of a product responsible for its cradle-to-grave environmental consequences. While that’s a different topic, we can apply the same concept to to the lifetime consequences of any dangerous object (a weapon, car, chemical, or building for example). If you purchase a gun, and anyone anywhere is killed with it, you would be responsible, even if someone stole it or wrestled the gun from you.

While it is true that unforeseeable accidents happen, a lot of accidents are gray areas. “The building accidentally fell down” is not really an accident because the owner was neglectful in ensuring that it wouldn’t fall down. If the defense of claiming something is an accident was removed from the law, then everyone would be a lot more careful.

Also imagine if there was no self-defense consideration in the law. Suppose you had a gun and were faced with a legitimate self-defense situation, but there was no protection of self-defense in the law. Knowing you would be found guilty of murder for shooting in defense, you might still do it because doing jail time is better than dying, but you would only make that decision if you were very sure that there was no way to escape or de-escalate.

With huge loopholes in the law for “accidents” and self-defense, people can make decisions that inevitably lead to great harm while bearing no responsibility. On the other hand, making the manufacturer or owner of every object responsible for its cradle-to-grave consequences is equally ridiculous.

Here’s a simplified first draft of a legal framework for considering these things all together:

  • Classification of tools: Tools fall into three categories: (1) common objects like a chair or knife; (2) inherently dangerous objects like a building, vehicle or gun; (3) and those not yet classified. While common objects can be dangerous (you can hit someone with a chair, or it you might fall of it), there is nothing about it that makes it more dangerous than any other object. A knife or sword is an edge case (sorry for the pun) but since it has no moving parts and its danger is fully apparent at a glance, it would be classified as a common object. An object that has not been classified by case law would be classified by a court when its use first occurred in a criminal complaint.
  • Classification of natural objects: Because things that are not controlled by any person can be dangerous (such as trees, rocks, wolverines, or blizzards), those things are only classified as “tools” if someone moved or changed them in such a way that created a new danger. For example a pile of logs that someone created would be a “tool”, and would usually be classified as a common object. But if the pile was built into a structure, then it would be classified as a building, which is an inherently dangerous object.
  • Automatic versus manual: A tool that you create, when it does something when you are not present, is treated as a tool that you used as if you were present. So if someone is hurt in a makeshift trap made of natural materials, or by an AI-powered laser drone, the creator is treated as if they were personally there doing the action of the tool.
  • Contracts: There can be no contracts or disclaimers covering tool use: no one can hide behind warnings or liability protection clauses. By the same token, you cannot sue a manufacturer on the basis of failing to educate or warn you.
  • Common objects used for harm: For common objects (category 1), the person in possession of it is responsible for how they use it. If they use it to injure or kill someone else, that case would be treated as if they did it with their own hands and not with a tool.
  • Dangerous objects used for harm: For inherently dangerous objects (category 2), each object must be registered in a public listing until it is destroyed, and the person declaring responsibility for it is responsible for everything that happens with it. They are responsible even if a different person uses it for harm.
  • Self defense: Laws pertaining to dangerous objects supersede laws pertaining to self-defense. Therefore if there was no inherently dangerous object involved, someone can use self-defense as an argument to avoid guilt. But if there was such an object involved, then the registered owner is responsible regardless of who did what in which sequence.
  • Harm from natural objects or events: For natural dangers like a river or mudslide, only the victim is responsible, and not a land owner or other authority. However if the natural materials were moved, then they could be treated as tools as explained above.

I see this framework as a way to assign responsibility in a way that reduces actual harm done, regardless of the status of laws covering the manufacture, sale or ownership of guns or other tools. While gun control measures could drastically reduce gun deaths, these responsibility measures would also have an effect on safety, and the two approaches could be used together. Since the US is not ready for major gun restrictions, a moderate form of gun control combined with these responsibility laws could be a lot more effective than just moderate gun control on its own.

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