Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act
|Other short titles||Child Safety Lock Act of 2005|
|Long title||An Act to prohibit civil liability actions from being brought or continued against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or importers of firearms or ammunition for damages, injunctive or other relief resulting from the misuse of their products by others.|
|Nicknames||Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005|
|Enacted by||the 109th United States Congress|
|Effective||October 26, 2005|
|Statutes at Large||119 Stat. 2095|
|U.S.C. sections created||15 U.S.C. ch. 105 §§ 7901, 7902, 7903|
|U.S.C. sections amended||18 U.S.C. ch. 44 §§ 921, 922, 924|
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) is a United States law that protects firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held liable when crimes have been committed with their products. However, both manufacturers and dealers can still be held liable for damages resulting from defective products, breach of contract, criminal misconduct, and other actions for which they are directly responsible in much the same manner that any U.S.-based manufacturer of consumer products is held responsible. They may also be held liable for negligent entrustment when they have reason to know a gun is intended for use in a crime.
The PLCAA is codified at 15 U.S.C. §§ 7901–7903.
In the years before passage of the act, victims of firearms violence in the United States had successfully sued manufacturers and dealers for negligence on the grounds that they should have foreseen that their products would be diverted to criminal use.
In 1998, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley sued gun makers and dealers, saying: "You can't expect the status quo on businesses which make money and then have no responsibility to us as citizens." The city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, also sued several gun companies. Mayor Joseph Ganim said that the city's action aimed at "creating law with litigation.... That's the route that we're going because [the industry has] always very effectively, with big money, lobbied the legislature and kept laws from being passed."
In 2000, Smith & Wesson, facing several state and federal lawsuits, signed an agreement brokered by President Bill Clinton, in which the company voluntarily agreed to implementing various measures in order to settle the suits. The agreement required Smith & Wesson to sell guns only through dealers that complied with the restrictions on all guns sold regardless of manufacturer, thus potentially having a much wider potential impact than just Smith & Wesson.
HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo was quoted as saying that gun manufacturers that did not comply would suffer "death by a thousand cuts", and Eliott Spitzer said that those who didn't cooperate would have bankruptcy lawyers "knocking at your door".
It was signed into law on October 26, 2005, by President George W. Bush and became Public Law 109–92. Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association thanked President Bush for signing the Act, for which it had lobbied, describing it as "... the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years into law".
As of October 2020[update], seven lawsuits have challenged the constitutionality of the law under the 5th and 10th Amendments, and resulted in both state and federal Appellate court decisions; all of these have found the PLCAA constitutional, except for the most recent, Gustafson v. Springfield Armory (see below).
Since the law's passage, there have been two cases taken to a jury trial for damages. In the first, a jury found in favor of a gun store in Alaska after a gun purchased by Jason Coday was used in a murder. The second resulted in a six million dollar verdict against Badger Guns after guns negligently sold there were used to shoot police officers.
In 2016, a Missouri gun store settled for $2.2 million, for selling a gun to a schizophrenic woman who later killed her father, after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the claim that the sale was "negligent entrustment" was not precluded by the PLCAA. The store had previously been warned by the woman's mother that she was mentally unstable, and asked that they not sell her a gun. At trial the owner testified that he had instructed his employees to always sell to anyone who passed the federal background check; medical experts testified that it would have been obvious to the employee who sold the woman the gun that she was mentally ill as he had noted that she seemed "nervous and in a hurry" at that time.
In October 2016, a Connecticut Superior Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the families of some victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting against the manufacturer (Remington), the wholesale distributor, and the retailer of the semi-automatic rifle used in the shooting. Judge Barbara Bellis ruled that the suit "falls squarely within the broad immunity" provided to gun manufacturers and dealers by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. In March 2019, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling, allowing plaintiffs to continue their suit against Remington. The US Supreme Court declined to intervene in ongoing litigation that had not been decided.
A lawsuit by victims of the Sutherland Springs shooting against the gun shop that sold the gun has been allowed to proceed because the shooter used a Colorado driver's license as identification to purchase the gun with a 30-round magazine (a 30-round magazine is standard on the gun). In sales of firearms to the resident of another state, the sale must comply with the laws of both the seller's and the purchaser's states. Colorado law prohibits the sale of magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds.
The Brady Center and families of victims of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting sued Lucky Gunner, the online store where some of the ammunition was purchased. Federal judge Richard Paul Matsch dismissed the charges. He ordered the plaintiffs to pay Lucky Gunner's legal fees under a separate Colorado law, HB 000–208.
Gustafson v. Springfield Armory
|Gustafson v. Springfield Armory|
|Court||Superior Court of Pennsylvania|
|Full case name||Mark and Leah Gustafson, Individually and as Administrators and Personal Representatives of the Estate of James Robert ("J.R.") Gustafson, Appellants, v. Springfield Inc., d/b/a Springfield Armory and Saloom Department Store and Saloom Dept. Store LLC d/b/a Saloom Department Store, Appellees; The United States of America, Intervenor|
|Decided||September 28, 2020|
|Citation(s)||2020 PA Superior Court 239|
|Appealed from||Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas|
|Appealed to||Superior Court en banc|
|Federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is unconstitutional since it usurps state power over tort law in violation of Tenth Amendment and application to suit by appellants is beyond scope of Commerce Clause as they did not own the handgun involved in their son's accidental death.|
|Judges sitting||John T. Bender, Deborah Kunselman, John Musmanno|
Several suits have challenged the constitutionality of the PLCAA. Ileto and District of Columbia v. Beretta U.S.A. unsuccessfully sought to have it ruled in violation of the separation of powers and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, by usurping the functions of the judicial branch. Another suit against Beretta and other gun manufacturers, brought by New York City, argued that the activities regulated by the law were beyond Congress's authority to regulate interstate commerce and violated the Tenth Amendment by usurping power properly reserved to the states.[a]
In 2020's Gustafson v. Springfield Armory, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed a lower court in holding the PLCAA an unconstitutional violation of the Tenth Amendment and the Commerce Clause, the first time a court had so held. The plaintiffs were parents of a teenage boy killed when a friend pointed a handgun at him and fired, believing erroneously that since there was no magazine in the gun at the time, it would not fire. They argued it was negligent of Springfield, the manufacturer, to not have included this feature, common to other handguns and dating back at least a century. The federal government joined the case as an intervenor to defend the constitutionality of the PLCAA.
Judge Deborah Kunselman initially dismissed most of the plaintiffs' arguments, finding their action met the definition of "qualified civil liability" that the law required state and federal courts to immediately dismiss. She did not find in the legislative history of the PLCAA an indication that Congress did not intend to bar suits such as the Gustafsons, and that it explicitly required that in cases such as theirs, the shooter's conviction for involuntary manslaughter, a volitional criminal act, be considered the sole cause of the injury, their allegations of product defect notwithstanding. She also declined to invoke constitutional avoidance and read the statute narrowly to exclude the instant case, as she believed the PLCAA raised constitutional questions as "federal overreach arises (and will continue to arise) in every PLCAA case."
Kunselman was thus more receptive to the Gustafsons' attack on the PLCAA's constitutionality, that "Congress usurped the States' police powers embodied in the common law and the allocation of lawmaking authority between the branches of state government" in passing it, since she read the PFCAA to effectively bar any tort claim not also associated with a statutory claim, an argument she chastised the defendants for failing to answer, instead relying purely on the Supremacy Clause. The trial court had concluded that the statute was a legitimate regulation of interstate commerce on the basis of its title; Kunselman rejected this as facile, "excessive deference grant[ing] Congress license to interpret the Constitution." She rejected the Second Circuit's finding in New York City's lawsuit that the PLCAA was within Congress's authority simply because the firearms industry was unquestionably interstate commerce.
"Whether a law regulates an industry engaged in interstate or foreign commerce is not one of the three categories of Congressional authority under the Commerce Clause", Kunselman wrote. "Whether a law regulates private activity that substantially affects interstate commerce is"; in the instant case she found that the Gustafsons had not participated in interstate commerce since they did not own the gun. Kumselman cited two Supreme Court decisions to this effect: United States v. Lopez, which had invalidated a conviction under the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, finding that law went beyond the bounds of regulating interstate commerce, and National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, where a majority of the justices agreed, in separate opinions, that the individual mandate to buy health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional because it compelled participation in interstate commerce.
After the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut, shooting incidents, a renewed effort has been mounted to repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act to make it possible for victims of gun violence to sue firearms manufacturers and dealers on a broader array of grounds.
Hillary Clinton stated that she would repeal the law if elected, saying: "They are the only business in America that is wholly protected from any kind of liability. They can sell a gun to someone they know they shouldn't, and they won't be sued. There will be no consequences." Shortly after Clinton made this claim, fact checker Politifact rated the statement false, noting that other businesses and entities in America have similar or greater levels of protection against liability, and that firearms dealers and manufacturers are still susceptible to lawsuits and liability.
Bernie Sanders, who as a congressman voted for the law in 2005, defended the law in October 2015, saying: "If somebody has a gun and it falls into the hands of a murderer and the murderer kills somebody with a gun, do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible? Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer." He changed his position somewhat in January 2016, saying that he would favor a partial repeal of the law.
In 2020, Bernie Sanders was again attacked for voting in favor of the law, especially by Joe Biden.
While gun violence continues as a major sociopolitical issue in the United States, the firearms industry has negated civil action lawsuits from gun violence victims due to protection from liability that federal law grants the business. According to the Center for American Progress — an organization known for representing progressive viewpoints — the PLCAA prevents "victims of gun violence from pursuing well-established legal claims against irresponsible gun manufacturers and sellers—without presenting an alternative means for the victims to be compensated." Exceptions within the law that allow lawsuits to go forward fall under "negligent entrustment" and "predicate exception" actions, which target negligent retailers or manufacturers who violated local statutes applicable to the sale of firearms, but these cases are difficult to prove and rarely clear the PLCAA threshold in court.
A 2007 report in the American Journal of Public Health states that the PLCAA is potentially dangerous to the public health because it removes both regulation and litigation as incentives for firearm companies to make their products safer.
This viewpoint is contended by certain circles, including the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, which noted that the "PLCAA’s purpose was to curb efforts by gun‐control advocates to circumvent state legislatures and attack Second Amendment rights through a never‐ending series of lawsuits against manufacturers and retailers of firearms to hold them financially responsible for crimes committed using the weapons they make and sell."
However, legal scholars have observed that advocates of the PLCAA failed to note any changes in financial implication for the firearms industry. A law review by the Southern Methodist University of Dallas, Texas noted that: “PLCAA opponents... argue that the so-called "tidal wave of litigation" used to justify PLCAA's passage is exaggerated in terms of both scale and cost. They point to Congressional debates examining the SEC filings of gun giants like Smith & Wesson & Ruger. Rather than revealing the hundreds of millions of dollars in litigation costs purported to exist by PLCAA supporters, they expose multi-million dollar sales figures, but only de minimis legal expenses. Also de minimis, according to such opponents, are the number of suits faced by the gun industry, accounting for only fifty-seven out of the ten million torts suits filed between 1993 and 2003... many seek injunctive relief only and therefore could not possibly have the economically crippling effects which PLCAA backers fear.“
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- City of New York, 404–08
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The PLCAA not only prevents most people from receiving compensation for their firearm-related injuries, it erodes litigation’s ability to serve its public health role of providing manufacturers with a financial incentive to make their products safer. ... The absence of both litigation and product safety rules for firearms is a potentially dangerous combination for the public’s health.
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- "Shooting Blanks: The Ineffectiveness of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act". SMU Law. 2006. Retrieved June 12, 2020.[dead link]