Backed by New State Law, Buffalo Files First Lawsuit Against Gun Manufacturers
The lawsuit and new New York state law demonstrate a shifting strategy among gun control advocates.
The city of Buffalo, New York, has launched a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against major firearms manufacturers for their alleged role in public violence and proliferation of weapons.
The suit, filed in the supreme court of Erie County, names more than a dozen firearms corporations as defendants. It is the first case filed after New York passed a law in 2021 allowing cities and towns to seek damages from firearms manufacturers.
The city is suing on four key points: the companies’ marketing, which “appeals to purchasers with criminal intent”; their alleged over-saturation of the market “in order to induce sales in the secondary market”; inadequately preparing dealers to avoid illegal transactions; and refusing to terminate contracts with dealers whose sales are directly traceable to crimes.
Mayor Byron Brown said at a press conference that the suit is aimed at curbing the proliferation of illegally owned guns in his city. “Members of our community have suffered too much and for too long from gun violence. We must do everything we can to decrease gun violence,” Mr. Brown said in a press release announcing the lawsuit.
Buffalo is seeking monetary compensation for a gun crime prevention program. The exact dollar number is not disclosed, but the lawsuit states that the city wants to collect “sufficient capital to eliminate the public nuisance [gun manufacturers] are responsible for creating, exacerbating, and/or perpetuating.”
According to a report from the Erie County executive’s office, gun crimes have fallen between 2020 and 2022. Despite the overall decrease in crime, however, the reality of gun violence in the city became a national focus when a teenager walked into a Buffalo supermarket and killed 10 people.
During the attack, the perpetrator used a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, which resembles an AR-15. The manufacturer, Bushmaster Firearms Industries Inc., is a defendant in the lawsuit. The killer at Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown, Connecticut, used the same rifle in 2012.
The law allowing for this kind of lawsuit was introduced by a Democratic state senator, Zellnor Myrie, and signed by Governor Hochul in the summer of 2021. The legislative text states that “given the ease at which legal firearms flow into the illegal market,” gun manufacturers “may be held liable for the public nuisance caused by such activities” in New York state.
The president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, Richard Aborn, heralded the law as a smart way to fight gun crime.
Mr. Aborn told the Sun that more states should follow New York’s lead. “Manufacturers have got to accept the notion that if they put something into the market, they need to be liable for what happens once they reach the market,” Mr. Aborn said.
The law further states that “any person, firm, corporation, or association” may seek compensation in their respective county supreme courts or in a federal district court. The president of the Crime Research Prevention Center, John Lott, called the law “bizarre.”
“This is about gun sales, and gun sales have gone up because violent crime has soared in the last few years,” Mr. Lott told the Sun. The reasons for this, he said, are numerous. “Law enforcement, broadly, hasn’t been able to do its job, departments have had their budgets cut, district attorneys aren’t prosecuting crime, and liberal judges are letting people out who should be behind bars.”
He said that the New York law is aimed at putting small dealers out of business, not going after criminals. “You can already bring lawsuits against dealers and criminals who sell or obtain weapons illegally,” Mr. Lott said. “Dealers are shut down if a single piece of paperwork isn’t correct, no matter how trivial. Should the Sun be shut down if I find even one typo in your paper?”
This specific lawsuit and New York state law demonstrate a shifting strategy among gun control advocates. In 2005, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which immunized firearms manufacturers from most civil liability claims. The Giffords Law Center, a prominent gun control advocacy organization, points out that 34 states have adopted some form of the PLCAA.
“These legal immunities have helped to shield this profitable industry from facing basic financial incentives to better protect public health and safety,” its website states. Delaware and New Jersey adopted laws similar to New York’s this year, and California’s will go into effect this summer.
Mr. Rice is a Staff Reporter based at Boston. He covers current events in politics.