Should Gun Manufacturers Be Held Responsible?

Every mass shooting in the United States evokes powerful emotions on both sides of the gun control debate. It is an absolute tragedy when mass shootings occur, but we all know the drill by now: immediately after any shooting, the left argues for increased gun control and bans on assault rifles, while the right and the NRA argue for the Second Amendment as a defense against further restrictions.

It is evident that the battles in Congress and the courts will continue to rage into the foreseeable future. Politicians on the left, meanwhile, are beginning to resurrect an old question in the gun control debate: should gun manufacturers be liable for damages caused with the weapons they produce?

Remington Arms Company, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year in nearby Ilion, NY, manufactures the Bushmaster AR-15 Rifle used in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The families of nine of the victims and a teacher who survived are attempting to sue Remington, alleging “negligent entrustment.”

Last week, a Connecticut judge ruled that the lawsuit can move forward, denying Remington’s claim that federal law shields them from liability. In addition to Remington, the families have filed a lawsuit against Camfour Inc., a firearm distributor.

Gun control has been a point of contention throughout the Democratic primary. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has run to the left of Senator Bernie Sanders on the issue and proposes holding gun manufacturers responsible for shootings.

Her website states, “Hillary believes the gun industry must be held accountable for violence perpetrated with their guns.” Additionally, Clinton advocates for the repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA).

Congress passed the PLCAA in 2005 with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, including support from Senator Harry Reid. This federal law protects gun manufactures from being liable for crimes committed with their products. Clinton has criticized Sanders for voting for the PLCAA in 2005 while he served in the House.

Sanders defended his position in a recent Rolling Stone interview. “We know what guns do,” he said. “Guns have the capability of killing people. But I do not believe that somebody who lawfully sells a gun to somebody else should be held responsible if somebody uses that product wrongfully.”

In a New Hampshire town hall last fall, Clinton attacked the PLCAA. “So far as I know,” she said, “the gun industry and gun sellers are the only business in America that is totally free of liability for their behavior. Nobody else is given that immunity.”

As is the case with many of Clinton’s statements, this is just not true. Although the PLCAA provides gun manufacturers with a substantial degree of protection, companies can be held liable for producing defective products. Additionally, if a gun store knowingly sells a firearm to someone intending to commit a crime, the dealer can be held liable for negligence.

Regardless of partisan politics, there’s no question that further debates on gun control are necessary. Proponents of gun control have a legitimate argument in questioning the legality of assault rifles such as the Bushmaster used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. But any restrictions should come through legislation rather than executive order.

Little justification exists for holding gun manufacturers responsible for criminal activity. If a drunk driver operating a Prius hits me, I have no standing to sue Toyota. 

Similarly, if a member of the Italian Mafia decides to stab me during my study abroad this semester, I couldn’t sue the manufacturer of the knife. Attempting the punish gun manufacturers such as Remington for selling legal products is unproductive and sets a dangerous precedent.