Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced legislation, The Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act, to ensure that the victims of gun violence are allowed to have their day in court and that the gun industry – manufacturers, sellers and interest groups – is not shielded from liability when it acts with negligence and disregard for public safety.
“Good gun companies don’t need special protection from the law, and bad gun companies certainly don’t deserve it,” said Schiff. “Other industries across our country like automotive manufacturers, pharmaceutical firms and even cigarette companies don’t enjoy special protection under the law, and there is no reason to give the gun industry the right to act negligently. As part of our larger effort to stop gun violence in the country, everyone – including gun companies – should be held accountable for their actions.”
In 2005, Congress passed legislation called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) which provides immunity in state and federal court from civil liability for licensed manufacturers, distributors, and dealers of firearms, as well as their trade associations, in most negligence and products liability actions. This immunity from liability under well-established common law principles that apply to everyone else in society is unique to the gun industry. As a result, gun makers and sellers have a lesser obligation to act with reasonable care for the safety of the public. It also means that gun sellers can turn a blind eye to straw purchasers or traffickers who may buy hundreds of weapons and traffick them to others with no background check whatsoever. A background check is only as effective as it is comprehensive and if gun dealers can sell to straw purchasers with impunity, it will allow large scale evasion of a universal background check system. As most gun companies are responsible businesses, this immunity only protects the worst actors in the industry.
Schiff has been working with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to draft this legislation, which has already attracted a dozen cosponsors.
“We are better than a nation where businesses have a duty to act reasonably if they sell bb guns or beer, but the gun sellers who irresponsibly profit off criminals are above the law that applies to everyone else,” said Dan Gross, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Most gun sellers are responsible business people who don’t supply criminals, but unless current law is changed, the few bad apples in the industry will be held unaccountable to victims of their irresponsible conduct.”
When Congress passed the PLCAA, its supporters argued that it was necessary to protect the gun industry from frivolous lawsuits, but that victims of gun violence would not be shut out of the courts. Senator Larry Craig, the sponsor of the legislation and at the time a member of the NRA’s board, stated during debate on the Senate floor, “This bill will not prevent a single victim from obtaining relief for wrongs done to them by anyone in the gun industry.” In reality, numerous cases around the nation have been dismissed on the basis of PLCAA even when the gun dealers acted in a fashion that would qualify as negligent if it involved any other product. Victims in these cases were denied the right to even discover or introduce evidence of negligence.
Schiff’s legislation allows civil cases to go forward against irresponsible bad actors. Letting courts hear these cases would provide justice to victims while creating incentives for responsible business practices that would reduce injuries and deaths.
Schiff also introduced the Straw Purchaser Penalty Enhancement Act, which would create a new two-year sentence for certain “straw purchasers” of firearms. Straw purchasers in the United States are responsible for many of the illegal firearm transfers to the Mexican drug cartels. Current federal penalties have provided prosecutors with little leverage in their efforts to tackle gang and cartel violence. Schiff’s legislation would provide prosecutors with a new tool to go after the gangs and drug cartels and the gun smugglers that arm them.
“During my time as a federal prosecutor, I learned that one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal was the ability to ‘roll’ lower-level offenders to get at those who were higher up and the most responsible for gun violence,” said Schiff. “The laws currently on the books targeting straw purchasers of firearms don’t treat it as anything other than a paperwork violation. We need to crack down on those who are buying weapons with the express purpose of providing them to those who can’t pass a background check. Straw purchasing is not a ‘paperwork’ violation – it’s a serious crime that has led to a horrendous increase in criminal access to firearms.”
During his press conference last week, President Obama called for stronger penalties for straw purchasers, remarking: “Congress needs to help, rather than hinder, law enforcement as it does its job. We should get tougher on people who buy guns with the express purpose of turning around and selling them to criminals. And we should severely punish anybody who helps them do this.”
Schiff’s legislation would create a new two year penalty for a straw purchaser who intentionally deceives a gun dealer about the true identity of the gun’s purchaser. The sentence would be in addition to the penalty under existing law. The bill also requires that gun purchasers be notified when they buy a gun that lying about the true purchaser of a gun is a serious offense. Schiff also made modifications to the version he introduced last Congress with the inclusion of a “Safe Harbor” provision that allows judges to reduce sentences for a narrow category of defendants.
Groups from across the ideological spectrum have called for enhanced laws to prosecute gun trafficking, including Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.