Taurus sold almost a million handguns that can potentially fire without anyone pulling the trigger. The government won’t fix the problem. The NRA is silent. By Michael Smith and Polly Mosendz

Thomas “Bud” Brown makes his way out the back door and stops a few steps to the right, raising a trembling arm, pointing at something. It’s where he found his boy slumped against the cold back wall of the house around 7:15 a.m. on the last day of 2016, bleeding out.

Brown is telling the story now, about how he was sitting in his chair in the living room when he heard the shot. His son Jarred, 28, had just picked up Bud’s Taurus PT-145 Millennium Pro pistol and headed out to do some shooting near the house in Griffin, Ga., with his best friend, Tyler Haney. Bud figured Jarred had fired at something for the fun of it, like he did sometimes. “I was thinking I’d better go out there and tell him to be careful or something,” Bud, 54, says, his voice trailing off. But what he’d heard was the pistol going off without anyone pulling the trigger, sending a .45-caliber slug through Jarred’s femoral artery. “Oh shit, my leg, my leg,” Jarred yelled, loud enough for his father to hear. Haney, 26, rushed into the house in a panic, pleading for help. When Bud got out there, the pistol was still in the holster, tucked into Jarred’s waistband.

The rest is a blur for Bud. His wife, Sonie, recalls running out of the house in her nightgown. She’d grown close to Jarred since he moved into their home a year or so earlier, taking him to the stables to feed her two horses, cooking for him, and just talking with him. And now Jarred was on the ground, his father kneeling over him, applying pressure to the wound. Sonie wrapped Jarred’s belt around his leg as a tourniquet. It was hard to tell how bad the bleeding was because Jarred was wearing thick waterproof hunting pants. Sonie worked on Jarred, alternating between chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth, using the training she’d gotten during a career as a Georgia state parole and probation officer. Haney paced back and forth until Sonie ordered him to call 911. “Jarred was trying to say something, but then the words wouldn’t come out, and he stared,” Sonie says. By the time paramedics got there, she knew her stepson was gone. “I wasn’t going to say anything because Bud was so torn up, but I knew,” she recalls today. “I can still taste the cigarettes on his breath.”

A collage of pictures of Thomas “Bud” Brown’s late son, Jarred, hangs on a wall in Brown’s home in Griffin, Ga., on Jan. 25, 2018. PHOTOGRAPHER: BRYAN THOMAS FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK 

 

In the days after his son’s death, Brown couldn’t get his head around how that Taurus pistol went off. He’d spent his career in law enforcement, first as a Spalding County Sheriff’s Department deputy, then as a cop in Jackson, a little town nearby, and finally with a Drug Enforcement Administration task force in Macon. (He retired 10 years ago before having surgery to remove a softball-size cancerous tumor from his esophagus.) For years, Brown was a police shooting instructor. He started teaching Jarred how to shoot with a .22 rifle when he was 7 and drilled safety into his head on hunting trips and at the shooting range.

Sonie also knows guns, down to the .38 revolver she’s licensed to use and carry in her purse for work as a probation officer. Sonie and Bud have 12 firearms in their small brick home—seven rifles and five handguns—and Bud is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. The Browns refused to accept that Jarred had accidentally shot himself. “Jarred knew his way around guns and safety better than I did,” Bud says. “He never would have done anything that would have made that gun go off.”

Those doubts were gnawing at Haney, too. He watched Jarred come out of the house with the Taurus safely in a holster and swears his best friend didn’t touch the pistol when it fired. “I knew there was something wrong with that gun,” Haney says. “So I Googled it.” He found a curious announcement on Taurus’s website: The company was offering to fix or replace nine of its handguns. The pistol that killed his friend was on the list.

Haney kept Googling. He learned that the repair-or-replace offer was the result of the 2016 settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by Chris Carter, a deputy in the Scott County, Iowa, sheriff’s department, against Brazilian gunmaker Forjas Taurus SA and two of its Florida-based units. In July 2013, Carter’s suit claimed, he was running down a suspected drug dealer when his Taurus PT-140 Millennium Pro pistol fell out of the holster at his hip, hit the ground, and fired, sending a slug into a nearby car. The suit further asserted that because of defects of design and manufacturing, nine different models of Taurus handguns can fire unintentionally when bumped or dropped or when the safety is on and the trigger is pulled. Taurus agreed to repair or buy back, for as much as $200, any of those models owned by people in the U.S. and its territories—an estimated 955,796 guns, according to the settlement. (The cut-off date for the offer was Feb. 6.) The company denied any negligence, wrongdoing, or defects in its firearms and also denied that its offer to fix its guns was a recall.

Haney sat Jarred’s dad and stepmother down in their living room to show them what he’d found. Sonie took down the name and number of Todd Wheeles, a state trooper turned lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., who’s handled 16 lawsuits against Taurus, including the class action in Iowa.

Two days later, Wheeles and another Birmingham lawyer, David Selby, were sitting at the Browns’ kitchen table. Wheeles showed them how the Taurus gun that killed Jarred would fire, even with the safety on. “In about 10 seconds he showed us three different ways that gun could go off on its own,” Sonie says.

Bud couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He’d never heard of any problem with Taurus guns. He never saw a notice at the pawnshop where he paid $250 for the gun that killed Jarred or at Walmart when he bought his ammunition. Before the kitchen table meeting was over, the Browns had hired Wheeles and Selby to sue Taurus for negligence and manufacturing defects. “I couldn’t believe that no one had warned us that those guns were bad,” Bud says. “Why didn’t Taurus warn us? Why did the government let them sell those guns?”

The simple answer is that no government entity has the power to police defective firearms or ammunition in America—or even force gunmakers to warn consumers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission can order the recall and repair of thousands of things, from toasters to teddy bears. If a defective car needs fixing, the U.S. Department of Transportation can make it happen. The Food and Drug Administration deals with food, drugs, and cosmetics. Only one product is beyond the government’s reach when it comes to defects and safety: firearms. Not even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can get defective guns off the market. If a gunmaker chooses to ignore a safety concern, there’s no one to stop it.

To understand how firearms makers escaped government oversight of the safety of their pistols, revolvers, and rifles, you need to go back to 1972, when Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Four years earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which regulated several aspects of firearm sales, and advocates of gun control hoped to give this new agency oversight of defective weapons. Representative John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan and a hunter with an A-plus rating from the ascendant NRA, blocked them. In 1975 he did it again, when a colleague introduced a bill making a second run at giving the CPSC firearms authority. “We put in there an express prohibition against them getting their nose into the business of regulating firearms and ammunition,” Dingell said in debate in Congress. That second bill was crushed, 339-80, and the issue has never been seriously considered again.

Sonie Brown and her husband, Bud Brown, with a picture of Jarred. On the morning of New Year’s Eve 2016, Jarred picked up his father’s Taurus handgun to shoot target practice behind their house when the gun went off while holstered.
PHOTOGRAPHER: BRYAN THOMAS FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

For Brown, none of that explains why he hadn’t heard that Taurus had sold bad guns. It’s one thing if the government didn’t do anything, but he reads every issue of American Rifleman, the NRA’s official magazine, and he never saw a warning about Taurus guns. “Why didn’t the NRA warn us? I guess there’s too much money and politics going into the NRA, so they had reason not to tell us,” he says.

The NRA lists gun safety as among its concerns, and in recent years, American Rifleman has covered voluntary safety recalls from Colt’s ManufacturingFN America, and SIG Sauer. But articles on Taurus’s class-action settlement or any of the lawsuits could not be found by search on the magazine’s website. Shooting Illustrated, another NRA publication, ran a three-paragraph story on the class-action settlement.

Taurus and the NRA have had a mutually beneficial relationship for years. A lot of that was the work of Robert Morrison, president of Miami Lakes-based Taurus International Manufacturing Inc., until 2011. Morrison is a close friend of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president. Taurus has received at least eight NRA awards and has been mentioned in dozens of articles in American Rifleman.

Morrison started as an independent Taurus salesman in 1994 before moving up through the ranks to run U.S. operations in 2004. He aggressively used the NRA to sell guns, introducing a program, still in effect, whereby anyone who buys a Taurus weapon is given a free one-year membership in the NRA. The strategy appears to have worked: In 2016, American Rifleman profiled an Alabama pawnshop that sold 1,000 Taurus firearms in a month with the promotion. The standard price for an NRA membership is currently $40.

Many Taurus models are considered starter guns. Bass Pro Shops, one of the largest firearms sellers in the country, sells nine Taurus-made models for under $400, including the $179.99 Heritage Rough Rider revolver. The cheapest Glock—a brand that works a different part of the handgun market—is $469.99.

The low end sees plenty of activity. Last year, six Taurus guns made category-based top-10-selling lists published by Gun Genius, a website owned by GunBroker.com LLC, the country’s largest online auction platform for firearms. That included the Taurus Model 85, the No. 1-selling revolver in America, which goes for as little as $219 on GunBroker.com. (The NRA didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this article. Morrison, reached at his Florida home by phone, didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

When Wheeles and Selby file suit against Taurus, their language appears to be crafted explicitly to head off suspicions the suits are veiled attacks on the right to bear arms. The suit over Jarred Brown’s death, filed last May in Florida’s 11th Circuit Court in Miami, states that Bud Brown “does not wish or intend to disparage his or anyone’s Second Amendment right to bear arms.” Instead, the suit is about holding Taurus “to account for importing, marketing, and distributing a pistol that is defective and unreasonably dangerous.” Such language was critical, according to Wheeles. “As an avid hunter and gun owner, I don’t want someone to pick up a case and say, ‘They just want to take away our guns,’ ” he says. “We want to say these guns are defective, and they should not be allowed to sell defective firearms in America. That’s what this is about.” Taurus has filed a motion to dismiss the case. The company, in a written statement to Bloomberg, said none of its guns are defective.

On a November morning, Wheeles puts a Taurus pistol on the conference room table in his office in Birmingham. He confirms that it’s unloaded and working properly and then makes sure the safety is engaged. “OK, the safety is on, so it shouldn’t fire,” he says, passing the gun to a Bloomberg reporter. “Now, pull the trigger.” With a click, the unloaded pistol fires. “That’s not supposed to happen,” Wheeles says, carefully putting away the gun.

The lawsuit over Brown’s death, like the class-action suit that Taurus agreed to settle and many of the other suits brought against the company, alleges flaws in the systems designed to prevent misfires. They include a trigger safety, which is intended to prevent the rearward movement of the trigger; a manual safety lever, which when switched up and on should block the firing mechanism; and a firing pin block, which is meant to keep the firing pin from moving forward and striking the round’s primer unless the trigger is pulled all the way back.

Taurus executives have been unyielding as they go up against Wheeles, starting with the first suit he brought against the company, in January 2007. The suit in that case described how Adam Maroney was loading a doghouse onto his Ford F-150 pickup at home in Boaz, Ala., in February 2005. His Taurus PT-111 pistol, in a detachable holster and with the safety engaged, slipped out of his left back pocket and fell to the concrete floor of the garage. The 9-millimeter slug tore through his pancreas, spleen, diaphragm, and lungs, leaving him severely injured. When police arrived, they found the pistol with the safety on. Taurus opted not to settle the suit, which accused the company of negligence and failure to warn customers of defects in its pistol, preferring to try its luck before a jury.

In a deposition, Morrison was defiant. Asked if Taurus Holdings Inc., the holding company for all Taurus operations in the U.S., was affiliated with Forjas Taurus in Brazil, he said he didn’t know. When Wheeles asked who owned Taurus Holdings—the parent of his employer for more than a decade—Morrison said he didn’t know. Asked whether Taurus tests the firearms it imports and distributes in the U.S., Morrison said he didn’t believe so, except for recent testing required in California. During a particularly tense line of questioning, Wheeles became frustrated and, according to the deposition, chuckled. “I’m not trying to insult you,” Wheeles said. “The answers that you are giving me are comical because you are being so evasive.” Morrison ended up admitting that there was a dangerous issue with his pistols: “My answer to the question—if you are referring to all PT-111s—it is: I believe that they can go off if dropped,” he said. In August 2009, a jury awarded Maroney $1.25 million in damages, plus reimbursement of medical costs. Taurus didn’t appeal the verdict.

Forjas Taurus declined requests for interviews for this story. In its statement to Bloomberg, the company said allegations that its guns are defective are baseless. “The settlement in the Carter case clearly shows that no defects were proven,” the company says. “Taurus’s commitments in that settlement are aimed at guaranteeing customers’ tranquility.” Far fewer customers have sent in their guns for repair or a cash payout than are covered by the settlement, the company said. Taurus Holdings also declined to comment.

A Taurus PT-111 Millennium G2, an updated version of one of the guns named in a 2016 class-action settlement. PHOTOGRAPHER: JOANNA MCCLURE FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

To understand the pervasiveness of Taurus’s safety issues, it helps to talk to Lívia Nascimento Tinôco, a Brazilian federal prosecutor in Aracaju, the capital of Sergipe state on the Atlantic coast. She’ll tell you that Taurus has a long history of selling guns that blow up or misfire, leaving a trail of injured, dead, or traumatized people. Almost all the victims in Brazil are law enforcement officers, who have no choice but to carry Taurus guns.

Tinôco knew little about Taurus until July 2016, when Cristian Sobral, commander of the special operations units for the state Civil Police, walked into her office to talk about the Taurus guns his men were forced to carry. Some jammed, had their safeties fail, or simply went off on their own, he said. He showed her reports of multiple incidents, and then he put on some videos. They showed Taurus pistols being dropped from about waist height and firing when they hit the ground. “I couldn’t believe it,” Tinôco says.

On July 15, 2016, she opened a formal investigation. Quickly, her investigators found reports of widespread defects in police service weapons—both pistols and long rifles, including the SMT-40 submachine gun—across Brazil. A 2014 report by the Justice and Public Safety Ministry’s National Public Safety Department revealed high rates of defects in Taurus guns purchased by police departments in 19 of Brazil’s 26 states; a 2010 test of 350 Taurus PT-840 police pistols showed 100 were defective.

In August, Brazil’s lower house of congress held hearings on the alleged defects of Taurus guns. Police officers gave dramatic testimony about being injured when their service weapons misfired or about living with the death or injury of bystanders who were hit. A Taurus lawyer testified that the company was fighting 35 lawsuits in Brazil alleging misfires.

The army, which regulates firearms in Brazil, requires law enforcement to buy guns made in Brazil. In 2008, Taurus bought its largest domestic rival, Rossi, and it now has effective control of 90 percent of gun manufacturing in Brazil, Tinôco says. This domestic monopoly allows Taurus to charge exorbitant prices, Tinôco’s investigation concluded: The PT-840, one of the most common pistols carried by Brazilian police officers, costs law enforcement agencies about $1,500 in Taurus’s home country. It sells for a fifth of that in the U.S.

In July 2017, Tinôco filed a 174-page lawsuit in federal court in Aracaju asking a judge to order Taurus to stop making 10 models of handguns and submachine guns and recall all of them in circulation in Brazil, alleging the guns were defective. The judge ordered Taurus to come up with a plan to recall the 10 models within 90 days but stopped short of banning production. Taurus appealed in another court, arguing that prosecutors hadn’t proved its guns are defective, and won an injunction that blocked the recall. Tinôco has appealed that November ruling, but sorting out the case could take years, she says.

A few years ago, police officers whose Taurus guns had misfired organized Victims of Taurus, a sort of advocacy and emotional support network for cops. In March 2015, they set up a group chat on the WhatsApp messaging system for its members. When a Bloomberg reporter was invited to join in mid-November, members posted a flurry of emotional testimonials: “Accidental discharge,” the first post by a police officer read; “Killing a passenger on a motorcycle”; “I had an accident with my CTT .40”; “Mine fired by itself, holstered and with the safety on”; “Shot in my leg when I saluted”; “Shot in index finger. … serious injury with permanent damage.”

In 2013, Taurus stopped selling the nine gun models alleged to be defective in the U.S.: the PT-111 Millennium, PT-132 Millennium, PT-138 Millennium, PT-140 Millennium, PT-145 Millennium, PT-745 Millennium, PT-24/7, PT-609, and PT-640.

There are allegations, however, of a new kind of defect in at least one popular revolver that Taurus still sells in America. This time, the gun didn’t misfire; it blew apart, according to a lawsuit filed in September in U.S. District Court in Raleigh, N.C.

On March 9, 2016, Michael Coleman, a veteran Durham County Sheriff’s officer, walked into the gun range at Eagle 1 Law Enforcement Supply in Raleigh. He carried the Rossi .38 Special +P revolver he’d bought for his wife, Joyce. It’s not among the guns Taurus agreed to fix or buy back. Joyce planned to use it for a conceal-and-carry course, but it had problems as soon as she tried to shoot it, hopelessly jamming after a couple of shots, according to the suit. Coleman sent it to Taurus for repair. Taurus told Coleman it had fixed the problem and returned the gun. The revolver broke again when Coleman tried to clean it; the firing pin simply fell out, the lawsuit alleges.

Coleman asked for a replacement, but Taurus decided to fix it again. Now Coleman wanted to see if it was finally working. He loaded the revolver from a box of 100 Winchester .38 special full metal jacket rounds, which the gun is graded to use.

Coleman knew his way around guns; he’d been a cop for a decade and now oversaw a special team at the Durham County jail trained to respond to riots. Before that he’d served 10 years in the U.S. Air Force. At the range he fired off some rounds, gripping the Rossi with both hands. When he switched to a one-handed grip and fired, the gun blew into three big pieces, his suit alleges. The force was so violent it took off Coleman’s right index finger above the first knuckle and shattered the remaining bone. His blood and tissue were spread across the firing range.

It took Coleman three and a half months to recover enough to return to work on light duty and six months to get back to full duty. In his suit, he says doctors tell him the pain and tingling in his hand will never go away. Coleman accuses Taurus of breach of express warranty and negligence. (Coleman, through his attorneys, declined to comment for this story.) Taurus, in court filings, denied the allegations and alleged that Coleman mishandled his weapon. Wheeles says several people have recently approached him with cases of misfirings of Taurus gun models that are now on the market.

Thousands of miles south, in Brazil’s São Paulo state, Rogerio Mello is still living his Taurus horror story. In 2013, Mello, an assistant Civil Police precinct commander and SWAT team leader in Ribeirão Preto, set his Taurus PT-640 service pistol, snug inside a detachable holster, on a little ledge while he used the restroom. He saw the gun slide off the ledge; he heard it discharge when it hit the tile floor; but he swears he didn’t feel anything as the slug tore into his abdomen, piercing his liver and right lung before stopping just short of his spine. “I couldn’t believe I’d been shot. There was no pain,” he recalls. He spent the next few years in and out of the hospital and then in court as his superiors fought his efforts to collect disability and damages. The police forensic ballistic report concluded the pistol may have been defective, causing it to misfire, but the state of São Paulo, his employer, accused him of mishandling the gun, which he denies. When he was well enough to work, commanders assigned him to his current post, in Serrana, a small town outside Ribeirão Preto, effectively demoting him.

Mello can live with all that, he says. What’s hard is going to work every day with another Taurus pistol strapped to his waist. The force requires him to carry it. So he makes sure the Taurus doesn’t have a chambered round, a potentially dangerous practice, since he won’t be ready to fire in an emergency. He also carries his personal weapon, a Bersa Thunder 380, this one always ready to fire. “It’s a constant source of stress and fear, worrying how to keep this gun from hurting me,” he says. “But I have no choice. Taurus always wins.”

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