Richard Barber hopes his decade-long quest for the truth about one of this country’s most popular firearms could be nearing an end.
The Belgrade man’s 9-year-old son Gus was killed after the family’s Remington Model 700 rifle fired without the trigger being pulled in 2000.
Since then, Barber dedicated substantial time and money to gather information about the rifle’s fire control system. He worked with Remington to develop a safer system and urged the company to recall all Model 700 rifles from the marketplace.
Barber believes documents from a 1991 lawsuit in Butte may hold the key to what Remington officials knew about alleged defects in Remington rifles at the time of his son’s death.
In 1988, a 14-year-old Brent Aleksich was severely injured after being shot through both legs by his brother Brock, after the Remington Model 700 rifle discharged when the boy released the safety.
Remington settled the case in 1995 for an undisclosed amount. In 2001, the court sealed the case from public review at the request of Remington.
After Barber filed to intervene in the Aleksich case, U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull unsealed most of the court records in February.
In his order granting Barber’s motion, Cebull said “substantial evidence reveals that a portion of the trigger mechanism of these rifles, known as the ‘Walker fire control,’ is defective and can cause the rifle to fire without a trigger pull.”
In its response, Remington argued that Barber’s request was untimely and that Barber should have known about this lawsuit when he filed his own lawsuit against the company in 2001.
Remington attorney Dale Wills of Chicago was contacted for this story. Wills said he would contact his client, but didn’t believe there would be a statement at this time.
Wills did not call back.
Cebull said in his order that Barber “convincingly” argued the relevant time for calculating any delay was September 2010 when Remington maintained its trigger mechanism was free of defect as part of a CNBC report on the firearm.
Cebull’s order said: “Public right to access court exists for cases decided a hundred years ago as surely as it does for lawsuits now.”
After the initial court order that unsealed a portion of the case, Barber spent several days in Butte making copies of the documents that were released.
In a telephone interview last week, Barber said he was encouraged by what he found so far, but believes that a transcript from the day that Remington’s attorney walked into the Butte court on March 28, 1995 and settled the case holds “what I believe to be the last key piece of evidence.”
On March 8, the nonprofit organization Public Justice filed a motion on behalf of Barber to unseal the remainder of the file for public review.
“We are thrilled that Judge Cebull revisited the protective orders in this case and found that there was no reason for continued secrecy,” said Public Justice attorney Amy Radon. “It is now our hope that Judge Cebull will take the final step of unsealing the remaining Aleksich court filings so that the public has access to the whole picture of what happened in that case.”
A Public Justice press release said the remaining sealed records are believed to include evidence that Remington hid its knowledge of the defective trigger mechanism from the court, the Aleksich family and the public for decades.
“I’m not prepared to disclose what my findings are at this point,” Barber said. “When I do, I think it is going to be very, very significant.”
Barber said he knows of at least 50 people who have been injured or killed by a discharge of a Remington Model 700 since his son died.
“Two weeks ago, I learned of another death,” he said. “Two days ago, I learned of another death. It’s not going to stop.”
Barber said he wants the public to have an opportunity to review this information and make its own informed decision about the safety of the rifle.
He also wants to honor the work of Rich Miller, a former board director of the Public Justice Foundation. Miller represented both the Aleksich family and Barber in lawsuits against Remington.
Miller died in 2006.
“There is no doubt in my mind that secrecy kills,” Barber said. “I want the public to finally see for itself the evidence that clearly established Remington has continued selling this defective rifle for years, even though it was well aware of the inherent risks to the public.”
“Knowledge of the facts is the only way to break this cycle and finally permit people to take responsibility for their own personal safety and that of their friends and family,” he said.
Barber said he is anxious to bring this matter to an end.
“I’m beginning to have faith in the legal system again,” he said. “I finally am beginning to feel good about my life again. I feel like I’ve come full circle and I’m almost to the end.”
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.