In 2005, former President George W. Bush signed into law the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act -- the "No. 1 legislative priority of the National Rifle Association" -- which immunized gun makers and dealers from civil lawsuits for the crimes committed with the products they sell, a significant barrier to a comprehensive gun violence prevention strategy. Despite recent reporting on proposed efforts to prevent another tragedy like the one in Newtown, a Media Matters search of Nexis revealed major newspapers and evening television news have not explained this significant legal immunity.
Faced with an increasing number of successful lawsuits over reckless business practices that funneled guns into the hands of criminals, the 2005 immunity law was a victory for the NRA, which "lobbied lawmakers intensely" to shield gun makers and dealers from personal injury law. As described by Erwin Chemerinsky, a leading constitutional scholar and the Dean of the University of California-Irvine School of Law, by eliminating this route for victims to hold the gun industry accountable in court, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was a complete deviation from basic "principles of products liability":
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is also commonly referred to as the "Gun Protection Act." The law dismissed all current claims against gun manufacturers in both federal and state courts and pre-empted future claims. The law could not be clearer in stating its purpose: "To prohibit causes of action against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers of firearms or ammunition products, and their trade associations, for the harm caused solely by the criminal or unlawful misuse of firearm products or ammunition products by others when the product functioned as designed and intended." There are some narrow exceptions for which liability is allowed, such as actions against transferors of firearms who knew the firearm would be used in drug trafficking or a violent crime by a party directly harmed by that conduct.
It is outrageous that a product that exists for no purpose other than to kill has an exemption from state tort liability. Allowing tort liability would force gun manufacturers to pay some of the costs imposed by their products, increase the prices for assault weapons and maybe even cause some manufacturers to stop making them.
The NRA successfully cloaked this special treatment for the gun industry as part of "tort reform" -- the right-wing's general attack on access to justice for victims of corporate wrongdoing -- by claiming the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was needed to stop "politically motivated" and "frivolous" lawsuits "intended to bankrupt the gun industry." Yet the Brady Center's Legal Action Project has successfully utilized the law's narrow exception for litigation based on gun industry criminality, proving that lawsuits against the current system that provides firearms for crimes are hardly without merit.
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act favors an industry that, at best, turns a blind eye to business practices that place profit over victims. As Forbes admits, the result is that "gun manufacturers have won double-barreled protection from Congress against the type of lawsuits that bedevil the makers of everything from toys to tractor-trailers." Although legal experts like Andrew Cohen, posting in The Atlantic, are starting to highlight this unnecessary and unprecedented immunity for the gun industry, further attention would better inform current calls to hold gun companies accountable in court. As leaders of Congress state that "every idea should be on the table" in attempting to prevent another tragedy like the Newtown massacre, major news outlets should investigate why the gun industry remains shielded by law from the consequences of its irresponsible business practices in a way that other industries are not.
For example, the same type of gun used in the Newtown shooting was used by the 2002 Washington, D.C., snipers to shoot more than a dozen people. But if it had been in effect at the time, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act would have blocked the lawsuit filed by the victims against the gun maker and dealer, and prevented the settlement they received. On this point, the questions of Denise Johnson, the widow of one of the snipers' victims, are still relevant:
"I'm confident that the criminal justice system will work to punish the people who killed my husband. But the civil justice system must also be allowed to work. Those who share responsibility for my husband's death must also be held accountable.
"I and families of other sniper victims have sued these gun sellers. I hope that by holding them accountable, we can cause others to behave more responsibly, and that future tragedies such as mine will be prevented. I understood when I filed the case that I was not guaranteed victory, but that's OK. All I wanted was my day in court. But if [the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act] is enacted, the courthouse door will be slammed in my face.
"No other industry enjoys the protections that the gun industry is seeking. Gun sellers and manufacturers shouldn't be above the law. If any other product injured my husband and irresponsible sellers played a part, I would be able to bring a case in court. But because Conrad was shot with a gun, my lawsuit would not be allowed. Those who sell guns that are sought by criminals need to be more careful than sellers of other products, not less careful.
"I call on Congress to protect my rights and the rights of other victims of gun violence. There's nothing frivolous about how bad gun dealers behave. And there's nothing frivolous about my case."