MANHATTAN — For more than a decade, Richard Barber has been saying publicly that the Remington Arms Co. rifle that accidentally killed his 9-year-old son was defective, and the company knew of the problem with the weapon and many others like it.
But after years of compiling more than 1 million documents on the company and its Model 700 bolt-action rifle, Barber doesn’t believe the company will ever admit to the problem — and he says it’s time to prosecute the firm or its representatives for deception.
Barber, who lives in the Gallatin Valley near Manhattan, said he’s pushing the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute Remington for criminal fraud, in connection with what he says is years of misleading the public and the courts about known defects in the rifle’s trigger mechanism.
“I believe that criminal charges being brought against these people will send a strong message to corporate America, that you’d better think about what you’re doing because you can be held accountable for your conduct that leads to people dying,” he said in a recent interview. “While I have very little faith in our judicial system, I want to believe that it can work.”
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Barber said he has talked to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI about the case and believes authorities are taking his request seriously.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Billings said the office doesn’t comment about investigations or what cases it may or may not be considering for prosecution.
Remington, through one of its attorneys, also declined to comment for this story — although the company has denied that its popular hunting rifle, the Model 700, is defective.
In a response to a 2010 CNBC documentary on alleged problems with the Remington 700’s fire-control mechanism, the company said it had never been able to duplicate a discharge without the trigger being pulled on a rifle that had been “properly maintained and not altered after sale.”
Barber, who was featured in the CNBC documentary, said the documents he has uncovered and compiled tell a different story, one of a company that knew firsthand of the defects for years.
“Virtually everything (Remington) said to the public to deny my statements was untruthful,” he said. “That’s fraud.”
Barber’s push for criminal charges against Remington is the latest turn in his 13-year investigation of the Model 700 after his son, Gus, was fatally shot on a family hunting trip in October 2000.
The rifle fired when Barber’s wife, Barbara, released the safety as she prepared to unload the gun, the family says. The bullet went through a horse trailer and hit Gus, who, unbeknownst to her, had run behind the trailer.
When news of Gus’s death was reported in newspapers, Barber began hearing from people who’d experienced similar incidents of unintentional firing by the Remington 700, millions of which are in use.
Those calls started Barber’s quest for the truth about the Remington 700 — a journey that has led him across the country to retrieve thousands of documents, to the offices of attorneys representing victims of shooting accidents, and to meetings with top Remington executives about possible fixes to the rifle’s trigger mechanism.
Barber said his own lawsuit against Remington led to a promise from the company to redesign the fire-control system that he says can allow the Model 700 and other rifles made by Remington to fire without the trigger being pulled.
Barber, an expert shooter and a small-arms instructor certified by the National Rifle Association, even visited a Remington research facility in Kentucky and tested the new designs himself.
The company designed the new fire-control mechanism — the X-Mark Pro — and began installing it in new models in 2006, but it reneged on the part of the deal to halt production of the old, defective mechanism, Barber said.
In the meantime, Barber continued to speak out about his concerns and to compile documents on the company and its rifle. He was a major source in CNBC’s hourlong 2010 documentary, which relied heavily on his research and opinions.
Barber had long thought Remington might be concealing its prior knowledge about possible defects in the trigger mechanism, but he said he didn’t realize the depth of Remington’s deception until the past year, as he reviewed a batch of records and court filings from a 1991 lawsuit filed against Remington by the Aleksich family of Butte.
The Aleksich lawsuit was over a 1988 incident similar to the one that killed Barber’s son. Fourteen-year-old Brent Aleksich was shot through both legs by his brother, Brock, when the Remington 700 that Brock was holding fired after he released the safety, the lawsuit said.
The Aleksiches settled the suit with Remington in 1995. The settlement and many accompanying documents were sealed.
The documents were unsealed last year by U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull of Billings, in response to a petition filed by Barber.
Within those documents are company memos, internal reports and other items produced in connection with the Butte lawsuit that show Remington was well aware of problems with the Remington 700’s fire-control and trigger mechanism, Barber said.
For example, company gun examination reports from the 1970s showed that Model 700 rifles had fired when the safety is released when small metal shavings had “reduced the engagement to a dangerous level” on the trigger mechanism.
The company also had “gallery reports” on new rifles that had fired unintentionally in the manufacturing plant, in the hands of Remington’s own employees, the records showed.
The fraud, Barber alleged, was committed by Remington when it denied existence of these documents and did not produce them in pre-1995 lawsuits against the company, despite orders by courts to do so.
Barber also said Remington has defrauded the public by refusing to acknowledge defects in the rifle. He acquired an email from December 2005 in which Remington responded to a man whose daughter was injured by a Model 700 rifle that fired unintentionally, and said it was “not aware of the issue you experienced in the Model 700.”
“What they told that man was wrong,” Barber said. “And it endangers his life. They gave him false information and a false sense of security that the rifle was safe.”
Barber has said for years that Remington should recall the rifles with the defective fire-control mechanisms or, at the very least, warn the public about its potential danger of firing without the trigger being pulled.
Since the company has shown no inclination to do either, he said it’s time Remington was held accountable for what Barber sees as criminal deception that has killed and maimed many people — and will harm many more.
“There is a tremendous body of evidence that shows what they knew, when they knew it and what they did or didn’t do with that body of knowledge,” Barber said. “Anyone who relies on (Remington’s bad) information, it will lead to more injuries and death. I believe that’s criminal, not to mention unethical and immoral.”