Corporations have consistently and predictably refused to introduce industry-wide safety measures due to increased cost. Volvo made car air bags standard, but no one else would. Coal-burning power plants refused to put scrubbers on their towers. Until they were forced to, that is. This force took one of two forms: increased government regulation and the threat of legal liability. Regulation didn’t initially force Ford to change the design of the gas tank on the Pinto; the threat of punitive damages did.
Did you see the new James Bond movie Skyfall this year? Did you notice the biometric Walther PPK? Wonder we don’t have those already? Think about it. There are more safety features to prevent injury on your lawn mower than on your gun.
In 2005, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, largely insulating gun manufacturers from the types of civil liability which every other industry in this country is subject to. At the time, Senator Edward M. Kennedy described the bill as "bought and paid for by the N.R.A.," and Representative Chris Van Hollen called it "a cruel hoax" on victims of gun violence. The law was promptly used to throw out dozens of pending lawsuits brought by the families of victims of gun violence against gun manufacturers such as Bushmaster, Glock, and Smith & Wesson.
This law could easily be repealed without any questions about violating the rights of lawful gun owners and should be a top priority for the new Congress. Further, as a matter of fairness, the period for filing lawsuits should be extended so that any lawsuits that were pending at the time of the law’s passage or could have been filed while it was effective should be allowed to proceed.
While the U.S. Supreme Court recently held that the Second Amendment protects the right of individual citizens to own guns, the right to bear arms no more includes the right of gun manufacturers to be insulated from liability or to stay in business than the right of freedom of the press protects newspapers from liability for libel or insures they will continue to be viable in the internet age.
Moreover, the repeal of the PLCAA would return oversight of this area of commerce and manufacturing to where it properly belongs, state legislatures and state courts. A state sympathetic to manufacturers such as Beretta and Bushmaster wishing to limit their legal liability may do so. Other states, such as New York and Connecticut, may choose otherwise.
History shows that the ability of the state attorneys general to pursue large scale misdeeds can be the only possible way to bring certain industries with overwhelming influence in Washington, D.C., such as tobacco manufacturers or banks, to heel. Restoring their ability to actively go after gun manufacturers could very well be the single best way to allow them to protect the public interest in this area as well.
The preface to the PLCAA states that allowing civil liability of gun manufacturers to continue was “an abuse of the legal system, erodes public confidence in our Nation's laws, [and] threatens the diminution of a basic constitutional right and civil liberty.” But doesn’t letting an overweening special interest push through legislation that insulates it from accountability do the same?
The PLCAA was a top legislative priority of the National Rifle Association for years. "It's a historic piece of legislation," said Wayne LaPierre.
In the aftermath of the horrible shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, it’s time to pass another historic piece of legislation—this time, repealing the PLCAA.