Bush signed law exempting gun makers from tort liability

Erwin Chemerinsky is the dean and distinguished professor of law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. Back in September, he wrote about this for Law.com. I think we can take Congress seriously about claims to do something about the Sandy Hook shootings and gun violence when they also promise to do something about this:

In 1994, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The law prohibited individuals from possessing assault weapons, like the AR-15 rifle allegedly used by Holmes. It is a civilian semi-automatic version of the military M-16 and was a “semiautomatic assault weapon” under this law. But in 2004, this law expired and was not renewed. President George W. Bush opposed extension of the law, and the Republican-controlled Congress agreed. Since then, efforts in Congress to reinstate the law have been unsuccessful and have not even come for a vote.

At the very least, gun manufacturers should be held civilly liable for the injuries and deaths that foreseeably result from their products. Traditional principles of products liability should be applied to assault weapons. Beginning around 2000, there was a rise in the number of lawsuits against gun manufacturers. However, in 2005, Bush signed a law that shields gun makers from being sued.

In 1999, this NRA shill explained why it was so important to exempt gun manufacturers from the same liability every other industry has.


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.

Thus, the law should go back to what it was a decade ago, when assault weapons were prohibited and civil liability for them existed. There is no Second Amendment problem with this. In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time found that the Second Amendment protects a right of individuals to have handguns in their home for the sake of safety. The court was very clear that this is not an absolute right, and nothing in the court’s opinion implies that there is a right to have all forms of weapons. It is unimaginable that the court will find a Second Amendment right for people to possess tactical nuclear weapons or chemical and biological arms or automatic and semi-automatic weapons.

Opponents of gun control argue that such bans don’t work and that criminals will still get semi-automatic weapons. There certainly is evidence to dispute that and to support the view that the 1994 act did decrease the availability of assault weapons. But in other areas, like illegal drugs, the fact of criminal noncompliance is never accepted as a reason against regulation. Besides, that is no reason against having civil liability for gun manufacturers.

After the tragedy in Aurora, I expected even the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, to argue for a ban on assault weapons. He signed such a law when he was the governor of Massachusetts. I was deeply disappointed that not even President Barack Obama did so. Whatever one’s views of the Second Amendment and gun rights, there is no reason to allow assault weapons and not to create civil liability for manufacturers. How many more tragedies must there be before our politicians have the courage to stand up to the National Rifle Association and take action?

4 Responses to Bush signed law exempting gun makers from tort liability

  1. dcblogger December 17, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was sponsored by Tom Davis of Virginia.

    In 2002 there was a sniper who killed something like 14 people in the Greater Washington area. The gun used in that crime came from a dealer in Washington state. John Muhammed, the perpetrator, was under a restraining order because of domestic violence, so it would not have been legal to sell him a gun. There was no recorded sale, but somehow a gun came into his hands.

    The family of one of the victims sued the dealer in Washington state. That family lives in Manassas VA, part of what was Davis’s district.

    Partly as a result of that suit, Davis introduced legislation to make it more difficult to sue dealers.

    None of the local news organizations, not the Washington Post, or any other local news organization held Davis accountable for this.

    we have a dysfunctional political culture.

  2. Tom December 17, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    i agree with dcblogger above, but would take it a step further by stating that we have a dysfunctional civilization. This legislation is no surprise when the tobacco industry is still in business, the liquor people are still in business, the pharmaceutical industry, nuclear power, coal and fracking people all get away with poisoning us. The only reason any of these are “special” (or exempt) is due to the fact that they have powerful lobbyists.

  3. Izquierdo December 17, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    I guess that Dubya didn’t believe in the ability of the market to self-correct.

  4. John J. December 17, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    What is especially creepy is that I seem to remember back in 1994 G. Gordon Liddy on talk radio fomenting some truly scary stuff along the lines of paranoaic shoot-outs with federal agents who might appear at the door of automatic weapons owners. There must be a record of this somewhere. It was insane, and if I have my timeline correct, it used some twisted rationalizations of the Waco tragedy. When the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, the rhetoric seemed to be, from some quarters, well what can one expect from “patriots” or some such bullshit.

    My father was a paranoid gun nut, who gave me, at 5 years old, a full replica .45 caliber handgun to play with, and reflecting on that and other aspects of growing up, I think a key to the gun-rights mindset is that it is a kind of symbol for expedient gratification of one’s desire to not engage in and with society. That could be race/sex/class oriented, but ultimately it is about “I got mine, you’re on your own.” Anyone can see this manifested in so many ways today.

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