September 24, 2013

Knives. Automobiles. Cold medicine. Alcohol. Cigarettes. Coffee.

What do these items have in common?

They’re all held to a higher safety standard than firearms.

Because of product-liability law, manufacturers must equip them with proper warnings, limitations and built-in designs that enhance their safety.

If they don’t, consumers can sue them for harm caused by the product. And all consumer products manufacturers are required to ensure that their products are free of design defects and don’t threaten public safety.

Guns, as Jonathan Lowy of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s Legal Action Project has said, are “the only consumer product in America with no federal safety oversight.”

Firearms haven’t always been a protected class; but as the industry lost millions in lawsuits over the years, liability protection became the NRA’s holy grail.

Before 2005, the Brady Center — named for President Reagan’s press secretary James Brady, who was shot and paralyzed in a failed assassination attempt on the president — had launched multiple lawsuits around the country. Los Angeles, New York and 30 other cities, counties and states had filed civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers — including a $100 million suit against the gun industry by Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1999. The pain inflicted on negligent manufacturers was real and it was expensive. In 2003, Bryco Arms declared bankruptcy after paying $24 million in the case of a 7-year-old boy who was paralyzed by a defective gun.

Then, in 2005, after a civil lawsuit brought after the Washington, D.C., sniper killings left the manufacturer Bushmaster with a $2 million bill, the NRA aggressively and successfully lobbied for the passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act , which offered permanent protection to gun makers.

There is absolutely no reason that the manufacturers of deadly weapons should be given a free pass. Yet, after a week of carnage that included the Navy Yard shooting and a Chicago killing spree, Congress — a wholly owned subsidiary of the NRA — isn’t even bothering with gun-control legislation.

The public is expected to move on, with a weary shrug of the shoulders and a passive shake of the head, resigned to the inaction of our elected officials.

But the seventh mass shooting in a year combined with data predicting another one in February are not signs that we should give up.

They are a reminder that change takes time, patience and resolve, even when the moving images of tearful families are pushed to the back of our collective cultural memory.

Following the 1981 shooting of Brady, it took over five years for Congress to introduce meaningful gun legislation. The Brady Law requiring background checks wasn’t signed until 1993.

As gun violence increases, so too does the NRA’s stock — and the stock price of the publicly held gun manufacturers that fund it. In the wake of the December 2012 Newtown massacre, gun sales increased across the country. And the NRA gets a dollar for every gun or package of ammunition sold at participating stores.

A lot of those dollars go directly into Congressional coffers. The Center for Public Integrity reported that the NRA, Gun Owners of America and other allied groups have poured nearly $81 million into House, Senate and presidential races since 2000. Of the 46 senators who blocked a federal background checks bill in April, 43 have received millions of dollars from pro-gun interests in the last decade. And if elected officials weren’t already scared of being unseated by NRA-funded ads and campaigns, they need only look to the two Colorado state legislators who were recently recalled for supporting gun-control legislation.

Yet, there may be an opening to once again revisit common-sense legislation, including changing liability laws. After all, those who voted against the background check bill saw their approval ratings in their states drop as a result. And as recalled Colorado Sen. Angela Giron recently wrote, there is, in fact, a growing counterbalance to the gun lobby, with more organizations standing up for those who favor sensible gun reform.

Before the gun lobby successfully killed all gun-control legislation, there were some key wins in the fight to hold gun manufacturers liable. Last year, the New York State appellate court ruled that a Buffalo man who was shot nearly a decade ago could sue the gun manufacturer, distributor and dealer. In August of this year, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of a plaintiff who filed a negligence lawsuit against the owners of a gun shop.

The NRA will paint product liability legislation as a threat to law-abiding gun owners. After all, guns are meant to injure and kill. But gun manufacturers could control distribution enough to prevent guns from entering the criminal market.

When the government is worried that you might use that second bottle of NyQuil to cook meth, it’s not unreasonable to ask why someone needs to buy 15 assault rifles in one sitting.

Washington’s shameful cowardice aside, there are leaders across the country who have courageously done the right thing, paying a political price so that innocent Americans don’t have to pay the ultimate price. As Sen. Giron said of her experience, “Today, Colorado is safer because of the laws we passed. I have no regrets about that.”

If more of our elected officials were inspired by her example, we might all have fewer regrets.

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