The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) (15 U.S.C. § 7903) protects firearms and ammunition manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers from civil actions resulting from the unlawful misuse of their products. Critics of PLCAA argue that the firearms industry should not have immunity from being held liable for the criminal use of their goods. However, under PLCAA, manufacturers can still be held liable for “negligent entrustment” when they have reason to believe a gun is intended for use in a crime, and they can likewise be held liable for injuries resulting from design or manufacturing defects. PLCAA is critical in upholding the Second Amendment, but ongoing conversations at the federal level have turned PLCAA into a partisan issue and created uncertainty about the future of the statute. The current stalemate on Capitol Hill has driven legislative activity to the states; several of which have recently passed legislation to provide state-level redundancy to the federal protections afforded under PLCAA. Threats to PLCAA affect access to firearms, our constitutional rights, employment in the firearms industry, military needs, and both interstate and foreign commerce.
In 2005, PLCAA was signed into law by former President George W. Bush. The previous year, a similar piece of legislation protecting firearm manufacturers and dealers failed to pass (voted 8-90 in the Senate) due to an additional amendment attaching an “assault weapons” ban, as the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban had reached its sunset. The original sponsor of the bill, Senator Larry Craig (ID-R), even called for voting against it after the amendment was attached.
As of June 2021, there have been seven legal challenges to PLCAA. Few challenges have ended in manufacturers or distributors being convicted, and in those cases, the guilty party has typically been required to provide monetary compensation. One such case involved a gun sold to a schizophrenic woman, resulting in the death of her father. The responsible gun store paid a settlement of $2.2 million. Another case was that of a firearm negligently and illegally sold to a man with the knowledge he would give it to another, which resulted in the critical injury of two police officers.
Additionally, the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting brought forth several lawsuits targeting the firearms industry, but their cases were dismissed. Under current federal firearm retail laws, firearms purchased from dealers must still match the legal standard of the buyer’s resident state. The families of the victims of the Sutherland Springs shooting are currently proceeding with a lawsuit, as the criminal’s home state (Colorado) restricted magazine capacity (15) is lower than the 30-round magazine that the shooter bought in Texas. Lawsuits against Beretta argued that PLCAA violated the Fifth Amendment by avoiding judicial approval. Another lawsuit in New York attempted to argue that the federal government violated the right of states to regulate their commerce.
In a 2008 Second Circuit decision, the court ruled that a collective of firearms manufacturers and dealers could not be held liable under a New York City criminal nuisance statute for their distribution practices, as the law was not “specific to the marketing of firearms” – referring to an exception within PLCAA in which protections from civil actions do not apply when a “manufacturer or seller of [firearms transported in interstate or foreign commerce] knowingly violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of [firearms], and the violation was the proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought.” Since then, anti-firearms advocates revised their approach to PLCAA and successfully enacted New York Senate Bill 7196, that is crafted to work around the Second Circuit’s decision and specifically target the sales and marketing “loophole”.
Points of Interest
- New York Senate Bill 7196 was introduced in 2021 as an attempt to bypass PLCAA and allow manufacturers to be sued for gun violence. The bill was introduced as a last-minute push for anti-PLCAA legislation, and it quickly passed both chambers and was signed by the Governor in July of 202.
- Iowa House Bill 621 was enacted on 06/01/2021. It protects manufacturers, importers, distributors, and dealers from lawsuits seeking recovery of damages from criminal or unlawful use of firearms, accessories, or ammunition by third parties.
- Montana Senate Bill 278 was vetoed by Governor Greg Gianforte in May 2021. One of its provisions would have prevented government entities from suing firearms manufacturers or dealers for acts committed by the public using their products.
- Arizona House Bill 1382 was enacted 05/07/2021 and includes legal protections for the firearms industry to protect it from liability lawsuits for unlawful use of its products.
- In 2022, Governor Newsom (CA) signed into law A.B. 1594, legislation that was modeled after New York’s SB 7196 and would allow state and local governments and individuals to sue the firearm industry.
- Federal legislation, H.R. 2814 (Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act), was introduced in 2022 to repeal PLCAA. It would specifically repeal provisions that prohibit civil actions against a firearm or ammunition manufacturer, seller, importer, dealer, or trade association for the criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm. The Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act has been introduced by Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA-28) in 2017, 2019, and 2021.
- Arizona Senate Bill 1382: “A store that sells firearms or ammunition, or firearms or ammunition components, is an essential business and is protected from a qualified civil liability action pursuant to section 12-721.”
- Iowa House Bill 621: “A person shall not bring or maintain an action against a firearm, firearm accessory, or ammunition manufacturer, importer, distributor, trade association, seller, or dealer for any of the following: (a) Recovery of damages resulting from, or injunctive relief or abatement of a nuisance, statutory or in common law, relating to the lawful design, manufacture, marketing, or sale of a firearm, firearm accessory, or ammunition. (b) Recovery of damages resulting from the criminal or unlawful use of a firearm, firearm accessory, or ammunition by a third party.”
- Montana Senate Bill 278: “a government entity may not bring suit against a firearms or ammunition manufacturer, trade association, or seller for recovery of damages resulting from, or injunctive relief or abatement of a nuisance relating to, the lawful design, manufacture, marketing, or sale of firearms or ammunition to the public.”
PLCAA protects members of the firearms industry from lawsuits resulting from the illegal use of their products, ultimately reinforcing our Second Amendment rights. State legislators are encouraged to support legislation that protects manufacturers and dealers from being held liable for crimes arising from the misuse of their products and pay close attention to legislation that looks to exploit loopholes and open manufacturers up to liability.
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