Politics

The Decades-Old Policy That Sparked The Biggest Democratic Primary Fight Yet

CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Guns manufacturers make up the only industry in America that is protected from lawsuits when its products lead to violence and death.

It’s a point that’s become a central issue on the campaign trail this week. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has repeated the claim, using it to hit her challenger Bernie Sanders, whose Senate record shows he once supported immunity.

In recent days, Clinton has highlighted in interviews, paid messages, and press releases that Sanders’ record is not progressive enough on guns. The topic that has won her a slew of recent endorsements from gun control advocates.

Sanders, who voted for the 2005 legislation to immunize gun manufacturers from liability, said Monday that he does not regret the vote.

“Like many pieces of legislation, like many of the 10,000 votes that I cast, bills are complicated,” the Vermont senator said at an event in Iowa on Monday, before adding later that he’s willing to “take a look at the onerous parts of that bill.”

While the presidential candidates debate the issue on the campaign trail, two Democratic congressmen in Washington have said they are ready to take up the fight. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are circulating a bill this week, the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act, which they plan to introduce later this month. The bill would repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a law passed by Congress in 2005 that shields gun manufacturers from liability in lawsuits over gun violence.

“There’s no reason why any one industry should have a unique immunity,” Schiff told ThinkProgress. “The makers of other products don’t enjoy that. Car makers don’t have that kind of immunity from liability, nor do those who make knives or those who make prescription drug bottles or anything else that may be safe or unsafe.”

Schiff claims that a full repeal of PLCAA is necessary. But Sanders argued Sunday that the law was only intended to prevent mom-and-pop gun shop owners from liability.

“There are parts of it that made sense to me,” he explained. “If you have a small gun shop owner in Northern Vermont who sells a gun legally to somebody and then, you know, something happens to that guy, he goes nuts or something, and he kills somebody, should the gun shop owner be held liable? I think not.”

But even the smaller gun sellers have issues with straw purchases, or sales made to a buyer who uses a different purchaser to execute the paperwork. An investigation in New York found that 16 out of 17 licensed firearm dealers approached by investigators willingly sold to an apparent straw purchaser. Research shows that repeat offenders contribute the most to gun violence — just 5 percent of all gun dealers are responsible for 90 percent of gun crimes in the United States — but most of the nation’s 10,000 gun dealers have experienced attempted straw purchases.

And the mom-and-pop gun sellers aren’t the only ones being given protection under the law, which provides immunity in both state and federal court from civil liability for manufacturers, distributors, and dealers of firearms. The parents of an Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting victim filed a suit against Lucky Gunner, the company that provider the ammunition to the gunman who killed their daughter. Not only was the suit thrown out because of PLCAA, but the judge ordered they pay $203,000 for the company’s attorney’s fees.

Schiff pointed to one example from his home district. Burbank, CA police officer Matthew Pavelka was shot and killed by gang members in 2003. His family sued the dealer who sold the weapon, and found out the dealer had sold multiple firearms to the same buyer who was illegally trafficking illegal guns.

“The family wanted to prove in court that the sellers did not exercise a reasonable standard of care in selling so many of the same gun to the same purchaser. Obviously it’s not for personal use,” Schiff said. “They were never able to have their day in court because the judge threw out the case on the basis of PLCAA.”

While Clinton is mounting pressure to reverse the immunization, NRA-backed lawmakers are unlikely to concede. The NRA made PLCAA its top legislative priority in 2005 and the group’s CEO Wayne LaPierre called it “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years.”

Because of its broad application, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said on a press call Wednesday that PLCAA is a “truly evil law” and “one of the worst pieces of special interest-backed legislation ever.” The group worked with Schiff to write the draft legislation that will be proposed this month.

“PLCAA gives the gun industry this unique form of immunity and that discourages the industry from employing best practices in cracking down on mass sales of guns to straw purchasers who buy large quantities of guns and then illegally provide them to gang members or resell them,” Schiff said. “If the gun dealers cannot be held liable, there’s little incentive for them to crack down on acts like straw purchases.”

Some victims have been able to successfully win lawsuits against gun makers — last year, in a landmark case, a jury ordered Badger Guns to pay $6 million for its role in an illegal gun sale, which ultimately led to two police officers getting shot. The case fell under negligence, one of six exceptions to PLCAA for when gun manufacturers and sellers can be sued. But it is still exceedingly hard for victims to prove that their claims fall into the law’s exceptions, which is why gun control advocates are adamant about legislation to repeal the law.

Schiff has proposed the same legislation in the past — most recently in 2013 — but he says there is more momentum this year because of recent tragic shootings and action by the president to cut down on gun violence.

“The prominence of the gun safety issue has done nothing but go up and up.”