Can Gun Violence Victims Sue Gun Manufacturers?

Yet another mass shooting has rocked the nation. This time at a nightclub in Fort Meyers, FL that was hosting an event for teens; leaving 2 dead and 16 injured.

Continuing the rash of horrific and tragic mass-shootings in the past four years, events like the one in Fort Meyers are forcing conversations about firearms. Guns in general have been at the forefront of Constitutional rights arguments for decades. The number of opinions and think pieces on the subject has reached critical mass.

One of the many nuances to the gun debate is whether or not people should have the ability to sue the gun manufacturer in the wake of a shooting. This is exactly what some of the family members of Sandy Hook school shooting are trying to do. It’s a particularly complicated issue that finds even some proponents of increased background checks and assaults weapons ban arguing against the ability to sue.

Have People Tried to Sue Gun Manufacturers Before?

In the late 90s and early 2000s, there were quite a few lawsuits brought against gun manufacturers. Usually, the general idea ran along the same lines that it does with lawsuits against tobacco companies: that the big firms lobby politicians to vote against any legislation which might hurt their brand or their sales numbers. Most of these fell within this spectrum.

In 1998, then Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley filed a $433 million suit against 22 separate manufacturers claiming that they had knowledge of illegal guns being sold within the city. This suit followed the precedent set by the city of New Orleans, who just two weeks prior had filed on the grounds that gun manufacturers had not instituted proper safety regulations for their products, making them liable for the cost of violence involving guns. A plethora of other cities and counties would follow suit. The results of both of these lawsuits were the same: they were dismissed by the respective judges, on the grounds that manufacturers cannot be held liable for a legal product used to commit an illegal act.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton and his administration forged an agreement with Smith & Wesson in what today seems like impossible-to-accomplish gun regulations. In exchange for being able to stay in business, Smith & Wesson would implement new safety and design standards on their products. The guns themselves would include locking devices, discontinuation of large capacity magazines, and smart guns with authorized user technology. On top of this, stipulations would be put in place that dealers could not sell at gun shows (unless all gun show traders conducted background checks), restrict multiple gun sales, and action would be taken against dealers who sell a disproportionate amount of crime guns.

This seems like fair and balanced regulations agreed upon by two parties willing to do something to curb gun violence. However, Smith & Wesson’s profits plunged dramatically, and the agreement was subsequently undone by the Bush administration, which provided the manufacturer with new federal contracts. This shows that, while manufacturers may have been willing to make changes to encourage a safer product, American citizens in general were completely against any type of regulations which affected the amount and type of guns they could purchase.

What is the Protection of Lawful Commerce of Arms Act?

In direct response to these lawsuits, the PLCAA legislation was signed into law by President Bush in 2005, and it stipulated, among many other things, that manufacturers couldn’t be held liable for crimes committed with their products. Despite assumptions to the contrary, it does not provide blanket protections for manufacturers against lawsuits. There are still a few situations in which they can be held liable for damages.

  • If the manufacturer makes the gun with prior knowledge of its intended use for a criminal act.
  • An action brought against a seller for negligence.
  • If there is a violation in the sale or marketing of the product, and said violation was a cause of harm.
  • A contract or warranty was breached in connection with the purchase of a product.
  • If there is a defect in the product, and said defect resulted in harm or death caused, even though the product was used in its intended manner.
  • If the Attorney General enforces the Gun Control Act or the National Firearms Act.

This lack of total immunity has brought a few lawsuits against gun manufacturers since 2005, however there is one that was dismissed as a result of this law, because the suit began before it was enacted, but a decision was not reached until afterwards.

Ileto v. Glock concerned a racially-motivated shooting carried out with illegally obtained guns. The family of the victim, Ileto, attempted to sue Glock in 2001 because they believed that Glock intentionally overproduced guns to take advantage of re-sale profits to distributors, knowing full well that those guns would in turn be sold to illegal buyers. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided in 2009 that the PCLAA barred this type of lawsuit against gun manufacturers, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, upholding the Appellate Court’s original decision.

What Makes the Sandy Hook Lawsuit Different?

In regards to the lawsuit brought against gun manufacturers by the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, a judge decreed that the suit could move forward because it’s possible that the manufacturer was negligent. This has brought out many arguments from both sides of the aisle; a lot of Democrats are pushing to have most of the PCLAA repealed. Others argue in nuance, stating that Anheuser-Busch would not be held responsible for a drunk driving death, therefore gun manufacturers should not be held responsible for deaths at the hands of a gun.

It’s a complicated issue in which a middle ground is tough to find, but as it currently stands the PCLAA does protect gun manufacturers from liability in most cases. As the Sandy Hook trial proceeds, many families will be paying close attention to the results, particularly those of the Orlando shooting victims. The ruling, whichever way it goes, will have a large effect on these types of lawsuits.

Featured Image By Huntbook1 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

B. Clausen

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Brian Clausen is the U.S. news reporter for Dopplr. Before joining the team, he created digital content for large companies.

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