By Scott Cohn Correspondent
A 10-month investigation by CNBC has found that at least two dozen deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the signature product of an iconic American company.
The Remington Model 700-series rifle - with more than 5 million sold - is one of the world’s most popular firearms. Famous for its accuracy, the rifle is now the target of a series of lawsuits claiming that it is unsafe and susceptible to firing without pulling the trigger.
Remington insists its rifle is safe and free of any defect, though internal documents obtained by CNBC indicate the company has wrestled with concerns over the gun’s safety for some 60 years. The documents reveal that on at least two occasions, the company considered – and then decided against – a modification of the original trigger design intended to eliminate inadvertent discharges. One of those proposed fixes would have cost Remington 5.5 cents per gun, according to the company’s own calculations.
To date, more than 75 lawsuits have been filed against Remington alleging safety problems with its 700-series rifle. The company has consistently stated that the deaths and injuries involving the gun have been the result of improper modifications, poor maintenance or unsafe handling, and it has prevailed in some court cases by arguing that inexperienced users are in denial that they pulled the trigger.
One of those who have suffered devastating consequences as the result of the Remington 700-series rifle is Richard Barber, of Manhattan, Mont. In 2000, Barber said, his 9-year-old son Gus was fatally shot after a day of hunting with his family when a Remington 700 rifle inadvertently discharged. Gus’ mother, Barbara Barber, had been unloading her rifle and later said she was certain her finger was not on the trigger when the gun suddenly fired. Within days of the accident, Barber began hearing about other incidents in which Remington 700s inadvertently went off.
“I went to the funeral home and looked Gus right square in the eye and I said, ‘Son, it ends here and now.'" Barber said. "I promised him I would never be bought off and I would never quit until I've effected change."
The Barber family sued Remington, and as a result the company agreed in 2002 to modify certain older 700 rifles for a fee of $20. But the settlement stopped short of a full recall, and the basic design of the rifle stayed the same.
CNBC found that from the very beginning, the company looked at ways to fix its bolt-action rifle, even contemplating a nationwide recall. But on more than one occasion, Remington decided against a recall.
And it turns out that decision is Remington's, and Remington's alone.
For most products – cars, toys, food, even BB guns - the government can order a recall. In 2010, for example, the Eagle 5 Rifle crossbow made by Master Cutlery was recalled after regulators found it could fire, without pulling the trigger, when the safety is switched off.
But the Consumer Product Safety Commission cannot recall guns. Nor can the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the Justice Department.
Guns hold a special place in American life - and American law, says Dallas attorney Jeffrey Hightower.
“Remington polices itself,” he said. “The gun industry polices itself.”
A federal law, passed in 1976 and upheld repeatedly in court, specifically bars the government from setting safety standards for guns, because of the Second Amendment.
Rich Barber says that’s as it should be. He’s a strong supporter of gun rights and is still an avid shooter. He even sometimes shoots Remingtons.
“It is our responsibility as pro-gun individuals to regulate an issue of this nature,” he said. “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.”
But now, some are trying to force Remington’s hand. The company is battling two proposed class-action suits demanding a nationwide recall.
Texas attorney Robert Chaffin, who is not involved in the latest suits, says that is easier said than done. He says fixing the Remington 700 has become far more expensive than years ago and now is estimated to cost $75 to $100 per gun.
“So you're talking about a recall campaign that could have cost up to $300 million if it was run to its fullest,” said Chaffin. “Which was actually more than the entire net worth of the company."
That cost would complicate the company’s plans to sell its stock to the public. Since 2007, Remington has been owned by the giant investment firm Cerberus, which had quietly begun buying gun companies the year before.
In October 2009, Cerberus announced plans to sell stock in a new company called Freedom Group, a collection of gun makers built around Remington. Like Remington and DuPont officials, Cerberus officials declined to be interviewed for this report. The company said it couldn’t talk to us about the Remington 700 this close to the public stock offering.
“I don't think anybody wants to go on national TV and lie,” said Barber. “I could say whatever I want. But those documents clearly speak for themselves and they speak volumes about what the company knew, when they knew it, what they did, and what they did not do, and what they continue to do today.
It has been ten years since the death of Barber’s son. He occasionally wishes life could be back the way it was. But he knows that can never be.