Firearm Manufacturers Target D.C. Strict Assault Weapon Liability Act

July 20, 2005

Firearm manufacturers have filed papers asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruling permitting lawsuits against firearms manufacturers under the District of Columbia’s “Assault Weapon Manufacturing Strict Liability Act.”

Firearm manufacturers maintain the District’s act is unconstitutional because it is intended to and does regulate out-of-state commerce.

The statute imposes liability, for example, when an out-of-state manufacturer (it has long been unlawful to manufacture and sell firearms in the District) sells a gun to a federally licensed retailer who then sells the firearm to the local police chief where — maybe years later — it is stolen during a burglary and illegally smuggled into the District where it is misused by a criminal to shoot someone. Liability against the manufacturer in this example is automatic and absolute because the act imposes liability “without regard to fault or proof of defect,” according to the lawyers for the firearms manufactirers.

“There is simply no way to avoid liability, except to go out of business — precisely the law’s intent and practical effect,” said Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president and general counsel to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearm industry.

Firearm manufacturers are represented by former United States Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, now a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Los Angles-based Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher LLP. In the manufacturers’ petition for a writ of certiorari, Olson argues the District is directly regulating interstate commerce in firearms in violation of the Commerce and Due Process clauses of the Constitution and improperly projecting its public policy choices on firearms nationwide, in violation of bedrock principles of federalism enshrined in the Constitution.

“The case presents significant questions of constitutional law and federalism that are important not just to the firearms industry but to product manufacturers in general,” said Olson.

The case was originally dismissed by District of Columbia Superior Court judge Cheryl Long in May of 2002, who ruled the Act violated the Commerce Clause and the Due Process clause of the Constitution.

On April 21, 2005, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held, in the case of District of Columbia, et al v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp., et al, that the District’s “Assault Weapon Manufacturing Strict Liability Act” did not violate the Constitution. The court ruled victims of criminal shootings in the District could sue out-of-state manufacturers and sellers under the District’s Act.

Topics USA Manufacturing

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