GunsThe Case That Could Topple the Gun Industry’s Special Legal Protections

By Champe Barton

Published 20 October 2020

An opinion handed down in a Pennsylvania appeals court threatens a law that gunmakers have long used as a shield against wrongful-death suits. The court’s opinion quashes an attempt by the Illinois-based gun manufacturer Springfield Armory to dismiss a suit brought by the family of a Pennsylvania teenager killed with one of its guns.

Pennsylvania court ruled September 28 that a law that has for decades insulated the gun industry from lawsuits is unconstitutional. The opinion quashes an attempt by the Illinois-based gun manufacturer Springfield Armory to dismiss a suit brought by the family of a Pennsylvania teenager killed with one of its guns.

If the ruling stands, no gun company will be able to use the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, to dismiss a lawsuit in the state of Pennsylvania. But the implications are potentially far greater. If the decision survives appeal at the state level, it is likely to catch the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. A ruling against PLCAA at the federal level would provoke the gun industry’s worst fears, exposing companies to the kinds of product-liability suits that forced sweeping reforms in the pharmaceutical, tobacco, and automotive industries.

“This decision puts this case on the national radar in a way it would never have been otherwise,” said Timothy Lytton, a legal scholar at Georgia State University who edited a book on the history of gun industry litigation. There have traditionally been two strategies for getting past PLCAA’s immunity, he said, and this case represents the most ambitious: “Strategy One is trying to penetrate the immunity wall by finding cracks” via the law’s narrow exceptions. “Strategy Two is to knock down the wall with a wrecking ball… If this Pennsylvania case succeeds, it’s going to knock the whole wall down.”

What Exactly is PLCAA?
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, more than 40 cities filed suits against various gun manufacturers and gun dealers, maintaining that the companies should be held responsible for surging rates of gun violence. The industry’s lobby arm — led by the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation — feared that these suits would make pariahs out of gun companies and mounted an aggressive campaign to oppose them. They sought a legislative fix that would dismiss existing suits and prevent new ones.

Two Republican legislators — Senator Larry Craig of Idaho and Representative Cliff Stearns of Florida — responded to this call by drafting PLCAA. The bill was designed to block any lawsuit seeking damages from gun companies for the unlawful use or misuse of a gun, effectively providing a blanket immunity. In 2005, just eight months after it was proposed, President George W. Bush signed the act into law.