It seems pretty clear which side of that argument you’d want to be on. But in this case, Clinton seems to be attacking Sanders unfairly.
Sanders got asked about this in an interview with the New York Daily News, and though he didn’t seem familiar with the specifics of the Sandy Hook lawsuit, he articulated his position on the issue:
Daily News: There’s a case currently waiting to be ruled on in Connecticut. The victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are looking to have the right to sue for damages the manufacturers of the weapons. Do you think that that is something that should be expanded?Sanders: Do I think the victims of a crime with a gun should be able to sue the manufacturer, is that your question?Daily News: Correct.Sanders: No, I don’t.Daily News: Let me ask you. I know we’re short on time. Two quick questions. Your website talks about…Sanders: No, let me just…I’m sorry. In the same sense that if you’re a gun dealer and you sell me a gun and I go out and I kill him [gestures to someone in room]…. Do I think that that gun dealer should be sued for selling me a legal product that he misused? [Shakes head no.] But I do believe that gun manufacturers and gun dealers should be able to be sued when they should know that guns are going into the hands of wrong people. So if somebody walks in and says, “I’d like 10,000 rounds of ammunition,” you know, well, you might be suspicious about that. So I think there are grounds for those suits, but not if you sell me a legal product.
Sanders is making an important distinction, which is that manufacturers and sellers should be liable for certain kinds of behaviors that create the conditions for gun violence to occur, but not for the simple fact of making and selling guns that are eventually used to kill people. That may have provided the opening for Clinton to attack him, but the truth is that their policy positions at this point aren’t really different.
It gets complicated because of Sanders’ past opposition to gun laws. He opposed the Brady Law, and supported the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a 2005 law that granted gun manufacturers and sellers sweeping immunity from all kinds of lawsuits (Clinton voted against it). He has justified that vote by saying that he wouldn’t want to see “mom and pop” gun stores sued when a gun they sell gets used in a crime, but the truth is that the bill went way beyond that (Pema Levy explains here).
And here’s what’s really strange: Sanders continues to defend his vote for the PLCAA, even though he recently signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill that would repeal it. And today he supports most of the same things Clinton does, like expanded background checks. Whether you think his change of heart is sincere, Sanders has moved his position on guns to where the Democratic Party is.
Now, some context. The PLCAA does leave a little bit of room for lawsuits, but you essentially have to prove that the seller or manufacturer you’re suing should absolutely have known that the gun in question was going to be used in a crime, which is a very high bar to cross. The Sandy Hook lawsuit rests on the theory that one of the guns Adam Lanza used to kill all those children, a Bushmaster AR-15, has no legitimate civilian use, and therefore when the company sold it to civilians (including Lanza’s mother), they were knowingly providing the tool of mass murder and nothing else.
That seems like a longshot, to put it mildly. But if it succeeds (and is widely accepted by other courts), it would indeed have the effect of making manufacture of that type of rifle impossible — essentially banning assault weapons without actually banning assault weapons.
It’s perfectly fine for Sanders not to have been familiar with the details of this lawsuit (it hasn’t gotten all that much attention). Also, Sanders has already called for a renewed ban on assault weapons (and he voted for the 1994 crime bill that instituted such a ban, which has since expired). The key line in that interview is: “I do believe that gun manufacturers and gun dealers should be able to be sued when they should know that guns are going into the hands of wrong people.” The question in this particular case would be whether he agrees with the plaintiff’s charge that merely producing an AR-15 constitutes knowing that it’s going into the hands of the wrong people.
But given that his first impulse when asked a question about it is to say that he doesn’t want to see manufacturers and sellers driven out of business, it seems that Sanders is uncomfortable with the idea of doing through the courts what can’t be done through legislation.
That’s a question that both he and Clinton should have to address specifically. A legal strategy targeted at gun manufacturers could succeed where legislative strategies have failed (and such a strategy would be much easier if the PLCAA were repealed), but it would be an entirely different way of going about restraining gun violence. There’s no reason you can’t do both — try to pass expanded background checks, say, while simultaneously trying to sue gun manufacturers into oblivion — but if that’s the strategy either one of the candidates favors, they ought to say so and explain why.
It’s easy (and probably effective) for Clinton to say that Sanders is standing with the gun manufacturers against the Sandy Hook families. But he needs to get briefed on this lawsuit, then explain whether he supports it — and how his position on that squares with his current stance in favor of removing the immunity that gun manufacturers and sellers have enjoyed since the passage of the 2005 law. Clinton too should explain how she feels about a legal strategy aimed at manufacturers, and how far she’d like to see it go. The discussion could get complicated and nuanced, but we can tolerate that in a presidential race, right?