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Tragic Death of Montana Boy Involving Remington Model 700 Rifle Alters Perceptions of Gun Safety Regulation

Aired January 23, 2001 - 4:34 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Another story of parents, love and loss: Weapons-rights advocates have long maintained it is not guns which kill people, but people who kill people. The death of a 9-year-old Montana boy raises a challenge to that assertion, at least in the case of one very popular weapon. It is also a gripping story of family tragedy, a family that now issues a desperate warning to other gun- owners.

Our in-depth look at the issue from CNN's Aram Roston.


ARAM ROSTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There's not a day that passes when Barbara Barber doesn't think about her son, Gus.

BARBARA BARBER, GUS' MOTHER: Losing a child really makes you prioritize your life, what's really important.

ROSTON: Every day, she wonders about life the rifle that went off in her hands and killed him.

B. BARBER: When you're either loading a gun or unloading a gun, or taking it off safety, there's absolutely no expectation for it to go off. And there shouldn't be.

ROSTON: The rifle was a Remington Model 700. With more than four million sold, it is the most popular rifle in America. Barbara Barber says she had no idea it might have a fatal flaw. Gus lived a life most boys only dream of. He was a star baseball player and a champion in the children's rodeo circuit. And he was being raised in the Montana outdoors tradition: hiking, fishing and hunting.

His father, Rich Barber:

RICH BARBER, GUS' FATHER: Hunting here to us is what Christmas might be to some folks someplace else.

ROSTON: In October last year, the Barbers, with 9-year-old Gus and their 13-year-old daughter Chanda, went on their annual hunting trip in Montana's Gravelly Mountain Range.

B. BARBER: It was a beautiful day out. And we were all in T- shirts. The kids went on up ahead. And they were singing silly songs. ROSTON: When they got back to the camp, Barbara took the Remington Model 700 to unload.

B. BARBER: I walked over to the horse trailer, like I've done 100 times in the past. And I went to pull the bolt up. And it wouldn't come up. So I took the safety off and it went off just that easy.

ROSTON (on camera): You didn't put your hand on the trigger?

B. BARBER: No. I had an open hand.

ROSTON (voice-over): Chanda was just a few feet from Gus when it happened.

CHANDA BARBER, GUS' SISTER: I walked over here. And Gus was on the ground. When a gunshot goes off, he pretends he's been shot. And I said, "Gus, why don't you get up? Quit faking" and stuff. My parents were all panicking: "Where's Gus? Where's Gus?"

R. BARBER: I rolled Gus over, saw the entrance wound in his abdomen. And Chanda lost it, was hysterical. And Barb was just, "Rich, I didn't have my hand on the trigger."

ROSTON: The bullet had gone through the trailer and hit Gus. They quickly put him in their truck and rushed to the hospital. There was little the doctor could do. Moments after arriving, Gus died.

R. BARBER: I lost everything.

ROSTON: For the first few days, Barbara and Rich didn't know how it could have happened. Barbara insisted then and still believes she didn't touch the trigger.

TOM BUTTERS, MECHANICAL ENGINEER: It essentially booby-traps the individual.

ROSTON: Tom Butters, a gun enthusiast and mechanical engineer from Texas, has been trying to warn people about the Model 700 for more than 20 years.

BUTTERS: The problem is, is that, as he pushes the safety to the fire position, the rifle discharges. The firing pin falls without him intending it to.

ROSTON (on camera): You mean that acts as a trigger?

BUTTERS: That's exactly what it does. If you have it on safe, you can't open the bolt. You push the safe to the fire position. It goes bang.

ROSTON (voice-over): Since 1962, when the Model 700 was first marketed, court documents show Remington Arms Company has received more than 1,000 complaints about accidental firings when the safety was disengaged. In 1989, Mike Collins (ph), a hunter from Texas, shot his left foot when he hit the safety of his Remington Model 700. His foot had to be amputated. Mike Lewy (ph) was unloading his 700 when it misfired. His mother was wounded as she slept a floor above.

(on camera): Did they tell the public these guns may go off?

BUTTERS: They have not done anything that would suggest to the public that there was a potential for an inadvertent discharge.

ROSTON: Did you wonder why you hadn't been told?

B. BARBERS: Nobody was told. Unless you've had it happen to you, that's the way you learn.

ROSTON (voice-over): This 1979 Remington Arms memo estimates that "1 percent of the pre-1975 Model 700 family of guns out in the field, which number about 2,000,000, can be tricked." That means, in 1979, the company believed 20,000 high-powered rifles were susceptible to this same misfire experienced by the Barbers.

B. BARBERS: A parent should never outlive their child -- never.

ROSTON: But according to the same memo, the company's safety subcommittee decided against a recall. Instead, the memo recommended a public campaign for proper gun handling.

(on camera): Could they have saved lives if they had issue a recall?

BUTTERS: I think so.

ROSTON (voice-over): In the early 1970s, when Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency was forbidden to regulate guns or ammunition. Jon Vernick is a gun-policy researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

JON VERNICK, JOHNS HOPKINS RESEARCHER: Virtually every other product other than guns is subject to safety standards: home appliances, toys, recreational equipment, boats. If there's a defect, they're subject to mandatory recalls.

ROSTON: The NRA and many gun-rights advocates say safety regulations and mandatory recalls could be the wedge leading to a total ban on guns.

BUTTERS: Good morning, Jack.

ROSTON: Even Tom Butters says litigation, not government regulation is the way to fix the problem.

BUTTERS: If the government could tell a factory or a designer how he had to do what he wanted to do in regard to a firearm, that's tantamount to giving them the right to destroy that particular industry or that particular manufacturer.

R. BARBER: This is not an anti-gun issue. I don't believe guns should be taken away from people. People weren't warned. The rifles were not recalled. And I am a statistic. ROSTON: Officials at Remington declined an on-camera interview with CNN. They pointed to safety recommendations on their Web site specifically aimed at users of the Model 700. In a letter, the company stated: "The popularity of the Model 700 is attested to by the fact that four million of these rifles have been sold to hunters, target-shooters and law enforcement agencies across the United States. When used following the rules of safe gun handling, including proper maintenance, and not inappropriately altered, the Remington Model 700 is a safe rifle."

Tom Butters examined the gun which killed Gus Barber. Butters says it met Remington specs in every way. In 1982, Remington says the company improved the design of the gun. But Tom Butters says, while the design change helped, the basic problem of misfires remains.

R. BARBER: I made a promise to my son that it stops here and now. Maybe it's time that someone gets involved and watches product- safety liability in...

B. BARBER: The firearms.

R. BARBER: ... firearms.

ROSTON (on camera): Did you -- either of you ever think you'd be saying that?



ROSTON (voice-over): Aram Roston, CNN, Manhattan, Montana.




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