Repealing the Gun Industry's Unacceptable Liability Shield

Last week, my children were held in lockdown at their schools because there was an active shooter in the area. That scenario, once unthinkable for most Americans, is now endlessly played out in cities across the nation, sometimes with the most horrific results.

It desensitizes us to the maddening reality of Congressional inaction. Since Aurora and Sandy Hook, Congress keeps on failing the families of those lost to the scourge of gun violence.

Congress has failed to require universal background checks or ban assault weapons. And while blaming much of America's gun violence on mental illness, Congress has yet to pass meaningful reform broadening access to care and making it more difficult for the seriously mentally ill to obtain weapons. Congress refuses to support federal research into how we can lessen gun violence. The notion that Congress is content to have moments of silence on the House floor, but no moments of action, is all too accurate.

But not completely so. In fact, the one time Congress truly acted was a major step back - to protect the gun industry.

In 2005, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) -- a law that the National Rifle Association described as "the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years." This is not an exaggeration. This new video by Brave New Films tells you everything you need to know.

This law provides unique 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 product liability actions.

When Congress was debating PLCAA over a decade ago, the bill's sponsor, Senator Larry Craig, stated "This bill will not prevent a single victim from obtaining relief for wrongs done to them by anyone in the gun industry." This statement has been proven to be patently false.

In reality, since 2005, PLCAA has shut the courthouse doors to victims of gun violence and their families and enabled the gun industry to negligently sell deadly weapons with near impunity.

In my hometown of Burbank, California, a rookie police officer, Matthew Pavelka, was shot and killed by a gang member in 2003. Pavelka's family brought a suit because the dealer that had sold the gun used by the gang member had a history of repeatedly selling guns to straw purchasers who sold to gang members, as was the case with the gun used in this crime. This dealer did not use reasonable care to ensure that the guns it was selling were, in fact, for the purchaser, and not merely bought by a straw purchaser as a conduit to criminal gangs. Yet because of PLCAA, the family did not even have the opportunity to present the evidence of carelessness and negligence in court.

Had PLCAA not been law, the family may or may not have been able to prove negligence on the gun dealer's part. But there is no doubt that his family would have had their day in court to try.

This story of denial of access to justice is all too common. Far too many suits have been thrown out before evidence was even presented, and even more were not even filed because of PLCAA's deterrence.

Not only has PLCAA denied victims equal access to justice, it has allowed the gun industry to continue acting with little regard for the consequences. In all other aspects of society, civil liability is how we hold companies and individuals responsible for acting with reasonable care towards others. If gun dealers know they are immune from liability, there is little incentive to secure supply chains, take advantage of safety devices, and ensure responsible conduct.

For these reasons, I introduced the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act, which would repeal the unique immunity that Congress gifted the gun industry in 2005. We must hold the gun industry to the same standard as we do all other industries to exercise reasonable care towards the public.

Passing the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act to repeal PLCAA will not be easy. The NRA is fighting tooth and nail to maintain its unique status as the only industry that can act with impunity. It's our job, as concerned citizens, parents and legislators, to press on, and share the stories that can bring about change -- so no parents need to receive word that their children are in lockdown, or worse.