Politics

Clinton: Why Shrink Gun Industry’s Liability Shield When We Could Just Get Rid Of It?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

With a new poll now showing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statistical tie in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton renewed her attack on Sanders’ record of support for the firearms industry on Sunday.

On CBS’ Face the Nation, Clinton again called on Sanders to say Congress should repeal a decade-old law protecting gun manufacturers and sellers from civil liability even when they had good reason to be suspicious of the intentions of their customers who later commit crimes.

Then-congressman Sanders was one of 59 House Democrats to support the liability restrictions in 2005. He has since said the law should be changed.

The Clinton campaign has hit Sanders on the vote repeatedly in the early months of the primary race. His openness to changing the bill isn’t good enough, she told Face the Nation. Sanders “has been unwilling to join the president and me in saying this should be repealed,” Clinton said, emphasizing that she and then-Sen. Obama opposed the measure Sanders supported in his final House term.

Sanders has indeed expressed a desire to modify the law rather than simply repeal it, in part because he says gun sellers should not be liable for crimes they could not have anticipated when they sold someone a weapon.”If you are a gun shop owner in Vermont and you sell somebody a gun and that person flips out and then kills somebody, I don’t think it’s really fair to hold that person responsible, the gun shop owner,” Sanders said in October.

The law in question doesn’t give gunmakers absolute immunity from lawsuits, but it does void the logic underlying a spate of court actions that states and cities attempted to take in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

A long list of local and state governments had tried to hold gun manufacturers legally liable for crimes committed with their products, on the grounds that the industry is negligent about keeping weapons out of dangerous hands and tracking its sales. The states sought to force the same kind of closer tracking of transactions and proactive adherence to background check rules that President Obama’s newest round of executive actions on gun policy is meant to achieve. At least 31 cities, including New York, filed civil suits seeking industrial liability for criminal use of poorly-tracked guns.

The 2005 law made lawsuits of that sort untenable, while still allowing a more standard form of liability lawsuit for people harmed when a deadly weapon malfunctions. Product defects create legal liability for gun manufacturers just as they do for auto companies and other consumer goods sellers, but the companies cannot be held responsible when individual consumers misuse their products to harm others.

Selling guns carries a different level of responsibility than selling cars and dishwashers, though, and critics of the 2005 law say it has made it all but impossible to pursue accountability even in cases of clear-cut negligence. The parents of one victim in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre ran afoul of the shield law recently.

They sued the online ammunition company that sold their daughter’s murderer his bullets, saying that the man’s behavior should have alerted sales people that he had ill intentions. A judge dismissed their suit, citing the 2005 federal liability shield, and ordered Lonnie and Sandy Phillips to pay more than $200,000 in legal fees for the company they had sued.

When the law was being deliberated in 2005, Republicans had a 55-vote majority in the Senate and a 230-vote majority in the House. The National Rifle Association showered both houses in campaign donations as part of a push to pass legislation to derail cities’ lawsuits. The group spent over $9 million to influence the 2004 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data, and another $3 million-plus in 2006.