A Gift to the Gun Industry

Thursday, June 2, 2005

THE PROTECTION of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which the House Judiciary Committee approved last week, is not a nuanced piece of legislation. Its purpose is to blast out of court current and future lawsuits against firearms manufacturers and dealers for the carnage wrought with their products. This bill is no tort reform measure. Rather, it's a gimme for the gun industry, almost a blanket shield against even justified lawsuits.

The rash of lawsuits against the firearms industry is troubling. Guns are legal products, and it's usually not due to any product defect that they kill people. Many lawsuits against the industry are obvious attempts to use litigation to achieve policy changes that gun control proponents are unable to garner legislatively. We favor many of those policy changes, but litigation is not the answer to America's problem with guns.

But not all of the gun lawsuits are frivolous or deserve to be thrown out without examination. What about a gun dealer who recklessly sells 100 handguns to an obvious straw buyer who then sells them to criminals who kill people? Should the courts not even entertain a negligence claim? What about a lawsuit against a manufacturer of firearms that are not useful for any legal purpose? The bill has certain exemptions from its liability protection, but they are so narrow as to be almost useless in ensuring that reasonable claims can proceed.

The measure's extreme nature was highlighted last week when Rep. Chris Van Hollen

(D-Md.) offered an amendment in committee to clarify as exempt from protection the situation in which "the seller knows that the name of the [gun buyer] appears" on the government's gang and terrorist watch list "and the person subsequently used the [gun] in the commission of a crime." Judiciary Committee Republicans voted the amendment down, alternately suggesting that it was duplicative of language already in the bill and that -- as Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) put it -- it would "create a vague standard that could be used again to destroy gun manufacturers with lawsuits that don't have clarity but cost a great deal of money."

Civil justice reform measures should make the rules of litigation fairer and more rational. This bill, which would create a unique exemption for gunmakers and dealers from the normal rules of liability, does just the opposite.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company