New Shield Law Could Erase Current Lawsuits Against Gun Makers

October 21, 2005

President George W. Bush is expected to sign into law a bill to shield the gun industry from most lawsuits filed by victims of gun crimes.

The House approved the bill by a bipartisan vote of 283 to 144, with 59 Democrats joining 224 of 228 Republicans in voting in favor. The Senate passed the bill in July. The bill has been a top priority for the powerful National Rifle Association for several years and has been supported by the White House.

In addition to shielding manufacturers against future lawsuits, the bipartisan-backed bill could also wipe out any remaining lawsuits against them relating to gun violence that are already in the court system across the country.

According to the bill’s supporters, gun makers and dealers would still be subject to lawsuits over product liability or negligence. The bill contains a provision that allows lawsuits where there is a gun defect or a gun maker or dealer knowingly sells a weapon to someone who has failed a criminal background check.

Supporters say the bill (S.397) would protect firearms makers and sellers dealers from the financial disaster that massive damages would bring. They also hope it will stabilize liability insurance rates.

Commenting on the passage of the legislation, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said, “This is an historic victory for the NRA. Freedom, truth and justice prevailed, and today S. 397 is one step closer to becoming the law of the land. No other industry is forced to defend themselves when a violent criminal they do not know, have never met and cannot control, misuses a legal non-defective product. American firearms manufacturers will now receive the same fair treatment.”

The American Insurance Association anticipated passage, calling that the measure would “provide practical, well-thought-out litigation management to the legal system.”

The House is also expected to approve H.R. 554, which would curb obesity lawsuits against the food industry, although the Senate may not have time to act on it before the end of the year.

“We welcome the House’s action on these legal reform measures,” Melissa Shelk, AIA vice president, federal affairs, stated. “Legal reform has long been a priority for AIA and we will continue to work with others in the business community to enact balanced legislation, such as H.R. 554 and S. 397.”

Opponents of the shield law and gun control advocates think the new bill goes too far and would not, as supporters claim, hold manufacturers responsible in situations, such as the Washington, D.C. sniper tragedy in 2002.

Opponents have decried the retroactive application of the shield law.
There have been dozens of lawsuits against the gun industry in recent years, however, most have been dismissed by the courts.

Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a lawsuit by the District of Columbia, as well as several D.C. residents injured or killed by gunfire, against gun manufacturers under D.C.’s Assault Weapons Manufacturing Strict Liability Act.

However, the new gun law could mean the D.C. case will be thrown out.

The gun industry has claimed that the D.C. act, which makes assault weapon manufacturers and sellers strictly liable for injuries that result from the criminal use of their guns in the District, violates the U.S. Constitution and asked the Supreme Court to review the case.

D.C.’s strict liability act, is the only one of its kind in the nation. Also more than 30 states have adopted laws similar to the federal bill that restrict rather than expand liability of gun makers and dealers.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence called the House approval of the bill a “step backwards for a country founded on the rule of law” and claimed that if signed into law by President Bush, it “would essentially place the entire gun industry beyond the bounds of civil liability law.”

Dennis Henigan, director of the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project, vowed to challenge the law on constitutional grounds.

“This bill is an unprecedented attack on the due process rights of victims injured by the misconduct of an industry that seeks to escape the legal rules that govern the rest of us. We believe state and federal courts across this nation are prepared to strike it down,” Henigan said.

Brady Center lawyers have nine pending lawsuits against gun sellers and manufacturers, in which they represent individual victims of gun violence, as well as urban municipalities. The cases are pending in the states of Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, North Carolina and in the District of Columbia.

The first of these cases scheduled to go to trial is the lawsuit brought by New York City against the gun industry, set to begin trial in federal court in Brooklyn on November 28 of this year. The suit charges the gun industry with contributing to a public nuisance in New York City by selling guns through retail dealers who facilitate trafficking of guns into the illegal market.

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