Can US citizens sue gun manufacturers?: The laws explained and the changes California wants to usher infp

Hours after the Texas shooting, California’s legislature advanced a slew of bills including one that allows private citizens to sue anyone who imports or sells assault weapons

With yet another mass shooting in the United States – the eight this year and the second in a fortnight – that left 19 schoolchildren and four adults dead in Texas, arguments around guns, public safety and rights have begun anew.

“I had hoped, when I became president, I would not have to do this, again,” a distraught President Joe Biden said as he led national mourning, vowing to overcome the US gun lobby and find a way to tighten gun ownership laws.

“Another massacre… an elementary school. Beautiful, innocent, second, third, fourth graders,” he said. “I am sick and tired of it. We have to act. And don’t tell me we can’t have an impact on this carnage.”

But these repeated calls to do something – from presidents of both parties, parents and the public at large have had little to no impact. Guns, especially high-powered assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols, remain ubiquitous in American life.

In the absence of political will, one strategy that is being pursued by some victims is to sue gun manufacturers.

While Biden himself has claimed that “the only industry in America, a billion-dollar industry, that can’t be sued,  has exempt from being sued, are gun manufacturers” that isn’t quite true.

But it isn’t black and white either.

Let’s take a look at what the law says, what the courts say and what steps California is taking.

What does the law say?

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), passed in 2005 after cities tried to hold manufacturers liable for gun violence, provides near blanket immunity for gun makers and dealers from liability for crimes committed with their products under federal law.

While this certainly makes things more difficult for citizens to sue, the law does carve out certain exemptions: negligence, breach of contract regarding the purchase of a gun, or certain damages from defects in the design of a gun.

What do the courts say?

The Connecticut Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that federal law permitted a lawsuit by families of Sandy Hook victims against Remington for violating the state’s marketing law by allegedly promoting its Bushmaster rifle for criminal use.

Remington, which twice filed for bankruptcy during the case, agreed in February to pay the families $73 million, the first settlement of its kind.

In 2019, the Indiana Court of Appeals said PLCAA did not prevent the city of Gary from pursuing a 1999 lawsuit against firearms manufacturers under the state’s public nuisance laws. Nuisance laws can be used to hold a defendant liable for damage done to a public good, like community safety, and the city alleged the manufacturers knew of illegal handgun sales and failed to prevent them.

Two federal appeals courts, however, have ruled that public nuisance lawsuits are barred by PLCAA because they don’t apply to the sale or marketing of firearms.

Following the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling, other cases were launched that are working their way through the courts, seeking to seize on exemptions in PLCAA.

Victims of a 2019 mass shooting at a California synagogue sued Smith & Wesson, saying the company negligently marketed the AR-15 style rife used by the shooter. A state court judge rejected last year the company’s argument the lawsuit was barred under PLCAA.

Meanwhile, the Texas Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that an online seller of ammunition,, was not protected by PLCAA from a lawsuit on behalf of victims of a 2018 shooting at a Santa Fe, Texas, high school. The company is accused of knowingly violating a law that makes it illegal to sell ammunition to minors.

Mexico last year sued Smith & Wesson Brands Inc (SWBI.O) and Sturm, Ruger & Co (RGR.N) and other firearm makers for the flood of weapons across the border from the United States. The lawsuit alleges the companies designed, marketed and distributed military-style assault weapons in ways they knew would arm drug cartels, fueling murders and kidnappings.

The companies have argued they cannot be held liable for crimes in Mexico stemming from legal sales of their products in the United States.

California swings into action

But some aren’t waiting for action at the federal level or for lawsuits to slowly make their way through the system.

As per US News, just hours after the shooting, California’s legislature advanced a slew of bills including one modelled on Texas’ controversial abortion law that deputises private citizens as its enforcers.

Senate Bill 1327 would allow private citizens to sue gun manufacturers or distributors and anyone who imports or sells assault weapons .50 BMG rifles and ghost guns, LA Times reported.

Another bill, Assembly Bill 1594, sponsored by state attorney general, would allow the California Department of Justice, local governments and gun violence survivors to sue gun manufacturers, importers and dealers if they are “irresponsible, reckless, and negligent in the sale or marketing of their products in California,” as per the report.

“We’re going to control the controllable, the things we have control of,” Governor Gavin Newsom was quoted as saying by the LA Times. “California leads this national conversation. When California moves, other states move in the same direction.”

With inputs from agencies

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