Gun Control Advocates Turn to Liability Laws in Campaigns Against Gun Makers

Gun control advocates believe that empowering citizens to sue gun manufacturers is the next step in their movement.

U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York via AP
Semi-automatic handguns seized in undercover transactions at Brooklyn, New York. U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York via AP

In what is shaping up to be a new front in the war over the Second Amendment, Washington may soon become the fifth state to expand the right of people to sue gun manufacturers for monetary damages if they are victims of shootings. 

After the landmark Supreme Court decision in New York State Pistol & Rifle Association v. Bruen, a number of blue states’ gun laws were deemed unconstitutional. Restrictions on applications were relaxed, states’ abilities to arbitrarily deny licenses were stymied, and gun owners were granted more leeway on where they can carry weapons in public. 

As the raft of new restrictions are being challenged in federal courts this year, gun control advocates believe that empowering citizens to sue gun manufacturers is the next step in their movement.

A number of states either have adopted or are working to adopt such measures. New York, New Jersey, and Delaware passed gun liability laws in 2021, and California followed suit last summer. At a bill signing ceremony, Governor Newsom said that “nearly every industry is held liable when people are hurt or killed by their products – guns should be no different.”

Washington is the most recent state to join the fray. A bill introduced in the state legislature would allow private citizens to sue for amounts as much as three times the actual damages the victims suffered, meaning that someone with a $500,000 medical bill as a result of a shooting would be able to sue a manufacturer for as much as $1.5 million. 

The state senator who is the lead sponsor of the bill, Jamie Pedersen, told the Sun that the legislation is aimed at reducing gun violence by creating stricter penalties for those who manufacture and market these firearms. 

“I think we are struggling with an epidemic of gun violence,” he said. “We are looking at ways to try and reduce that. One of the things that is most important is to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”

Mr. Pedersen said that gun manufacturers ought to be held accountable if retailers — both large commercial chains like Walmart and small, family-owned gun stores — do not follow through on the required due diligence on prospective buyers. 

“We have a background check system, but we rely on a web of retailers and distributors to ensure that is implemented correctly,” he said. “If you have manufacturers who are selling to online retailers that are not following Washington law about background checks, then that has a potential for people to evade our laws.”

“The purpose of this is to get those manufacturers and retailers interested in following the law and to get them interested by creating a financial incentive,” Mr. Pedersen said. 

At a committee hearing on Tuesday, gun control advocates came out in force to support the measure. One mother who lost her son during the riots at downtown Seattle in 2020 told the committee that she should be able to sue the manufacturers for damages. Jim Parsons, who lost his daughter in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, said the law would force the industry to reconsider “irresponsible” marketing tactics.

Senator Mike Padden, however, said the law overreaches. The Republican said manufacturers can already be sued if they “knowingly” engage in conduct that results in gun violence. One gun rights advocate suggested at the hearing that the proposed law violates the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was passed by Congress in 2005 and immunized gun manufacturers from civil lawsuits. 

Should it go into effect, the Washington law is likely to face legal challenges. When New York’s law was adopted, gun rights groups quickly sued, arguing that the 2005 immunity law “expressly preempts ‘qualified civil liability action.’”

A federal judge of the Northern District of New York, Mae D’Agostino, dismissed the Second Amendment groups’ lawsuit, saying in her decision that the state’s gun liability law did not preempt federal statutes.

Buffalo became the first city to sue gun manufacturers under the liability reform law. Mayor Byron Brown said that the suit is a key component of his crime-fighting efforts. “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.

The New York Sun

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