Legislators push to end gunmakers’ protection from lawsuits

Journal Inquirer

Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Christopher S. Murphy are among a group of lawmakers leading a new charge to repeal a federal law shielding firearms manufacturers and sellers from liability when their weapons are used to commit crimes.

The Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act, introduced Tuesday by Blumenthal, Murphy, and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., would effectively countermand the 14-year-old Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a bête noire for gun control advocates who say the law denies victims of mass shootings and their families a day in court.

“We cannot keep giving the gun industry a license to kill,” Murphy said this week. “By making them immune to lawsuits, we are essentially putting their interests ahead of our community’s safety. That’s just wrong.”

Blumenthal said he and his colleagues want the firearms industry held responsible for the effects of their products in the same way as the tobacco industry, which must make annual payments, in perpetuity, to states to compensate for smoking-related medical costs.

“Every other industry has to pay punitive damages if it intentionally and purposefully violates a standard of care,” the senator said.

The new bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., Jason Crow, D-Colo., and Dwight Evans, D-Pa., represents the latest effort by progressives in Congress to undo what they call a “sweetheart deal” for the gun industry, but which Republicans and some red state Democrats defend as a necessary safeguard for American businesses and the jobs they create.

Currently, firearms manufacturers and dealers can be sued for damages resulting from defective products, breach of contract, criminal misconduct, or other actions that fall within the scope of normal U.S. consumer protection law. They cannot, however, be found liable for illegal acts committed with their products.

Any change to that system could have significant ramifications for domestic gun makers, including those with operations based in Connecticut.

The state’s longest-lived and most visible firearms company, Colt’s Manufacturing Co., has its headquarters in West Hartford; other manufacturers include Stag Arms of New Britain; North Haven-based O.F. Mossberg & Sons; Fairfield’s Sturm, Ruger & Co.; the Wilson Arms Co. of Branford; and Winchester-based Wildey Guns-USA Firearms Corp.

President George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act into law in 2005. The measure was intended to establish a legal “line in the sand” for courts deciding liability issues in class action lawsuits brought by victims of firearms violence.

In the years before the law came into effect, several mayors, including Chicago’s Richard M. Daley and Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, had attempted to take firearms makers and dealers to court, accusing the industry of pumping deadly weapons into volatile and economically devastated neighborhoods. Both lawsuits were still pending when the new regulations effectively nullified their claims.

In March, the Connecticut Supreme Court set the stage for a future challenge to the law by ruling that families of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown can sue Remington Outdoor Co., the manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle used in the attack.