CNBCfix review: Remington
probably not under as much
‘fire’ as Scott Cohn suggests

          Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2010

Scott Cohn's CNBC documentary on Remington is so convincing, it actually makes one wonder: What's the catch?

Cohn produces an hour's worth of witnesses and company reports as compelling evidence of a scary thought: Sometimes the Remington 700 fires without the trigger being pulled.

If such a prominent manufacturer has been making such an apparently faulty product for so many decades, for buyers including police and the U.S. military, surely someone — either from the company or outside the company — would've stepped in by now and ordered a fix?

That clearly hasn't happened. So the question is why.

Cohn's story begins and ends with tragedy. He speaks with Rich Barber, of Montana, whose 9-year-old son, Gus, was killed in 2000 when a Remington 700 series discharged while Barber's wife, Barbara, was handling it.

The Barbers' story is heartbreaking. They say they are "100%" certain Barbara's finger was not on the trigger when the discharge occurred. They discovered many others had made similar complaints about the Remington 700 series.

Cohn, in fact, says, "We found the complaints numbered in the thousands."

But this is where Cohn leaves a massive hole in his report: How many complaints are there about other companies' guns?

Cohn never addresses this.

His program reasonably calls into question an angle he avoids mentioning, which is, to what degree must a product receive complaints in order to be considered unsafe?

Cars are recalled so often, it takes forever just to sift through NHTSA's annual list. Airplanes crash, sometimes for mechanical reasons, and we keep flying. Some people have died from police Tasers. The U.S. space program has lost 2 shuttles, but continued to fly them.

Cohn and Remington agree that the company has sold 5 million 700 models. Cohn describes the complaints as follows: "At least 2 dozen deaths, and more than 100 serious injuries, all linked to an alleged design flaw."

But a little investigating finds that this story isn't exactly a Cohn scoop.

In fact, CBS News reported on the Barber family's suit in February 2001, nearly 10 years ago. Unlike Cohn, CBS received a statement from Remington specifically about the Barber case that it described as follows:

"In a written statement to CBS News, Remington said it had looked at the rifle that shot Gus Barber and found 'the inside of the rifle to be heavily rusted, and the trigger engagement screw, safety lever and fire control mechanism all had been either adjusted or removed and reinstalled after the rifle left the factory.' A spokesman added, however, that 'Remington is not asserting this is what caused the discharge' and declined to answer additional questions."

Like CBS, Cohn ledes with the Barber tragedy and gives 700 Series critic Jack Belk significant air time.

But what actually gives Cohn's report fresh meat is his list of professional users, such as police snipers in Portland, Maine, the Kissimmee, Fla., SWAT team, and U.S. Border Patrol agents as recording complaints about the gun. A veteran gun instructor in the state of Washington, Bob Cecil, says he's well aware of complaints about the gun and says "We call it a Remington Moment."

Cohn acknowledges the U.S. Army awarded Remington a new $28 million contract. But he said the elite Marine sniper-training school in Camp Lejeune expressed a "safety concern" over the gun.

Even more intriguing is an interview with the gun's original designer, Mike Walker, now a stellar 98 years old. Cohn says "he has never spoken publicly" about problems with the 700 until now.

This could be incredibly damning. Yet, Walker's analysis isn't likely to satisfy plaintiffs' lawyers. Walker maintains his popular trigger design is safe. He blames manufacturing. And the biggest problem, apparently as he sees it, is that the "safety" isn't really a safety, which seems a separate problem and doesn't appear to address why the gun could fire when the trigger is not touched. Cohn asks Walker about the Barber tragedy and others: "Poor handling of rifles, that's all," Walker says.

The CBS report in 2001 on the Barber case mentions something Cohn doesn't: That the gun in question was 28 years old. Presumably, a 28-year-old gun that is adequately maintained should pose no greater safety risk than a new gun. But common sense also suggests that as products get older, they are more likely to break down. Is this gun prone to rust, corrosion? Only knowledgeable gun handlers could say for sure. That Cohn does not mention the age of the weapons in his summary of the reported accidents is a disservice to his many viewers who are not gun users who simply would wonder if it might be a factor.

Cohn's most likely audience is bound to be gun owners. As of this writing, many people commenting on this program on gun-owner message boards had not yet seen the program. Would gun owners appreciate Cohn exposing an apparent flaw, or instead view his program as a backhanded attack on the Second Amendment? This comment on one blog was expressed by several others: "If the operators of these rifles were following proper firearm handling procedures, these deaths could not have occurred."

Remington's own brief response to the program, which Cohn excerpts on the program, is posted at It says in the 2nd paragraph, "Despite emotional reporting of baseless and unproven allegations and plaintiff lawyer assertions, several undisputed facts remain."

And this is a later paragraph:

"Both Remington and experts hired by plaintiff attorneys have conducted testing on guns returned from the field which were alleged to have fired without a trigger pull, and neither has ever been able to duplicate such an event on guns which had been properly maintained and which had not been altered after sale."

In the show's second segment, Cohn describes the history of Remington and notes its longtime ownership by DuPont. But then he notes DuPont sold the company in 1993. Curiously, he waits until the 54th minute to report that the current owner is private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, which owned Chrysler prior to its (2nd) bailout and boasts a number of bigwigs such as ex-Treasury Secretary John Snow and ex-Vice President Dan Quayle among its ranks.

Walker's comments and the company's own reports give Cohn ample evidence there's a problem. He just doesn't give it ample perspective. The Barber family, in fact, has settled with Remington, and appears to be taking part in this production in an ongoing effort to pressure the company to change. This production, part of the CNBC long-form programming unit, is reliant on old news and trial lawyers. It's still tightly focused and watchable. But it's missing the bigger picture.

Cohn makes clear that evaluating gun safety just isn't something the government does, and even Consumer Reports hasn't done it for decades. This is the really fascinating business angle. This is one of the purest examples of a libertarian business case study we're going to get. There will be no government regulation of this product. On Remington's side are the U.S. Army and apparently decades of satisfied hunters. Opposing it are a collection of 100-plus injured users and their attorneys who will have their day in civil trials only. Even Rich Barber admits, if the government regulated gun sales, "they'd be so safe, they wouldn't work."

Investigative journalism generally aims to produce change, usually by governments. Many Pulitzers are won this way. Cohn is going to come up short on that scorecard. Remington has obviously concluded, with no threat of government recall mandate, that there are not enough lawsuits to justify a recall. Cohn has given gun users and non-gun users something to think about. But this subject is the ultimate free market. The conclusion of his program has to be, when buying a firearm, you're on your own. Which is just how gun owners want it.

Update: A week after "Remington Under Fire" aired, the Portland, Maine, Police Department did in fact remove its 5 Remington 700s from service, citing the amount of complaints about the gun expressed in the documentary.

"Remington Under Fire" (2010)

Featuring: Rich Barber, Barbara Barber, Shanda Barber, Gus Barber, Glenn Collins, Jay Rambo, Douglas and Donna Jordan, Cathy Anderson, Robert Chaffin, Bob Cecil, Jack Belk, Bob White, Merle "Mike" Walker, Roger James, Jeff Hightower, Laura Watson, Ted Kraus, Tommy Millner

Host: Scott Cohn
Senior executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Senior producer: Jeff Pohlman
Lead editor: Steven T. Banton
Editor/colorist: Gary VandenBergh
Associate producer: Emily Bodenberg
Senior designer/animator: Jacqueline Dessel
Camera: Gerard Miller, Oscar Molina, Chris Balcom, Gim Lay
Additional camera: David Grogan, Leroy Jackson, Amy Sandefur, Bill Irmscher, Phil Newman, Bob Sandefur
Audio: David Grogan, John Hughes
Jib operator: Mike Milia
3-D animator: Joe Stipo
Graphic artist: Chang Jeong
Media coordinator: Richard Marko
Interns: Danielle Abraham, Rita Warkov
Manager and chief photographer: Angel Perez
Global creative director: Victoria Todis
Director of post production: Vito Tattoli
Unit manager: Pamela Gaskins
Production manager: Tracy Lawrence
Vice president, long form programming: Ray Borelli

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