Some Democratic California lawmakers want to make it easier for people to sue gun companies for liability in shootings that cause injuries or deaths, a move advocates said Tuesday is aimed at getting around a U.S. law that prevents such lawsuits and allows the industry to act recklessly.
But critics call the bill, which is modeled after a New York law passed last year, an illegal overreach. They say its true purpose was to force gun manufacturers out of business.
In general, when someone is injured or killed by gunfire it’s very hard for the victim or their family to hold the gun manufacturer or dealer responsible by suing them and making them pay for damages. A federal law prevents most of those types of lawsuits, which advocacy groups say is unique to the gun industry.
But the U.S law does permit some types of liability lawsuits, including when gun-makers break state or local laws regarding the sale and marketing of their products. Last year, New York approved a first-in-the-nation law declaring such violations a “public nuisance,” opening up gun-makers to lawsuits.
California Assembly member Phil Ting of San Francisco unveiled a bill on Tuesday modeled after the New York law, which is being challenged in court by gun-makers.
“Almost every industry in the U.S. is held liable for what their products do. … The gun industry is the one exception,” Ting said. “Financial repercussions may encourage the firearms industry and dealers to be more responsible.”
The bill is co-authored by Assembly members Chris Ward of San Diego and Mike Gipson of Carson. Gipson’s son, his son’s fiance and another man were shot in Los Angeles in April 2020. Gipson’s son and fiance survived. But the other man, Gary Patrick Moody, was killed.
“This is absolutely personal to me,” said Gipson, a former police officer.
Gun advocates quickly denounced the bill, known as AB 1594, as a smokescreen for another attempt by California progressives to ban guns. Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, compared it to suing Gov. Gavin Newsom because he owns a winery and people have misused his products by drinking and driving.
“He can’t ban guns, but he’s going to try to bankrupt lawful firearms-related businesses,” Paredes said.
California has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, including a ban on most assault weapons that has been in place for decades. But last year, a federal judge overturned California’s assault weapons ban, prompting a lengthy appeals process.
Angered by the move, Newsom last month asked the state Legislature to pass a law allowing citizens to enforce the state’s assault weapons ban through lawsuits. The idea is similar to a Texas law that bans most abortions but leaves it up to private citizens to enforce the law by taking offenders to court.
The bill announced on Tuesday would not do that. Instead, Ting said it would let people and governments sue gun manufacturers or dealers for liability in shooting deaths or injuries. That’s a key distinction from the Texas abortion law, which is only enforceable by private lawsuits.
It’s unclear what these potential lawsuits against gun makers could include. The bill filed in the state Legislature is just one sentence long, declaring gun manufacturers have created a public nuisance if their failure to follow state and local gun laws result in injury or death. The bill will likely be changed several times as it moves through the legislative process.
Tanya Schardt, senior counsel for gun control group the Brady Campaign, said lawsuits could include suing gun dealers who knowingly sell weapons to people who then sell them illegally to others who are not allowed to own them. Or it could mean suing a gun manufacturer that supplies dealers they know are selling guns used in crimes.
The goal is to “create an environment where the gun industry is held accountable,” Schardt said.
Chuck Michel, a civil rights attorney and president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, said that goal will likely backfire by making it harder for law-abiding citizens to have guns for self-defense.
“As a matter of policy, to try and shift the blame for the criminal misuse of a lawful product that is used far more often to save lives and protect lives than to take them is a terrible idea,” he said.
This article was first published in Insurance Journal.