Gun makers fire back, sue states over "public nuisance" laws

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Over the past couple of years a handful of states, starting with New York, have put laws on the books that allow citizens to sue gun makers over the third-party actions of criminals; an attempt to do and end-run around the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was approved on a bipartisan basis in 2005 in an effort to curb these exact kinds of junk lawsuits meant to bankrupt the firearms industry. The most recent states to adopt these public nuisance statutes are New Jersey and Delaware, and they’re now the subject of brand new litigation aimed at overturning the regulations on the grounds that they violate the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution as well as many other portions of our founding document.

“These laws enacted by the Delaware and New Jersey flout the will of Congress and undermine the U.S. Constitution,” said Lawrence G. Keane, NSSF Senior Vice President and General Counsel. “These state laws are at odds with bedrock principles of American law, which does not hold manufacturers and sellers legally responsible for the actions of criminals and remote third parties over whom the manufacturer and seller have no control when they misuse lawfully sold products.”

Delaware and New Jersey’s laws also violate the First Amendment, Second Amendment, Due Process Clause and Commerce Clause. These laws would impose liability on industry members for firearms lawfully sold in other states that later find their way into Delaware or New Jersey through the independent actions of remote third parties and criminals.

Basically, any time a criminal uses a gun in the commission of a crime Delaware and New Jersey want a gunmaker to be sued for their supposed liability. Even if the gun was stolen, even if the buyer passed a background check, even if the gun had been purchased 20 years ago; if there was a gun involved, the gun maker should pay.

It’s an absurd legal standard, and one that anti-gun politicians only want to apply to the firearms industry. Brewers, distillers, and automotive makers aren’t subject to lawsuits every time a drunk driver criminally misuses their product and harms or kills someone as a result. Heck, both the New Jersey and Delaware laws specify that these public nuisance standards apply to gun makers only. If someone uses a knife in the commission of an armed robbery, the company that crafted the blade can’t be sued. But if the robber uses a pistol, then victims can fire off those lawsuits at will.

Joe Biden has made the repeal of the PLCAA a regular part of his gun control talking points, but now that Republicans have secured a majority in the House of Representatives that’s off the table. Instead, expect to see a flood of blue states create their own “public nuisance” laws in the coming months to get around the PLCAA’s prohibition on these junk lawsuits.

The NSSF has already filed suit against New York’s law, and the case is currently in the Second Circuit. Attorney Paul Clement, who successfully argued for the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association in the Bruen case, is representing the firearms industry trade group and individual gun manufacturers in both the New York case and the new lawsuit taking on the Delaware and New Jersey statutes. Clement is a brilliant legal mind, and his initial complaint in the latest lawsuits are fun reads with solid arguments in favor of overturning the laws and preventing them from being enforced while the issue is litigated.

Here’s a taste (emphasis is mine):

A1765 is breathtaking in its scope. Although criminal misuse of a firearm triggers the statute’s application, A1765 does not regulate the use of firearms. Nor does A1765 impose liability on individuals who misuse firearms to the detriment of themselves or others. Instead, the statute regulates selling, manufacturing, and advertising lawful (and constitutionally protected) firearms and related products. In other words, A1765 regulates commerce in and speech relating to arms—even when it takes place entirely outside of New Jersey, as will often be the case.

The statute also removes traditional elements of tort law that ensure that judges and juries do not impose liability on private parties for constitutionally protected conduct. For instance, speech-based torts traditionally required proof of reliance. A1765 not only does away with that bedrock requirement, but allows judges and juries to impose liability based on truthful, non-misleading speech about lawful products. Making matters worse, A1765 redefines proximate cause to include criminal misuse by third parties with whom a defendant never dealt—which is not proximate cause at all.

None of this is constitutional, argues Clement.

The Commerce Clause prohibits states from regulating commerce (selling, manufacturing, marketing, etc.) that takes place beyond their borders, even when that commerce has effects within the state. The First Amendment prohibits states from punishing wide swaths of truthful speech about lawful products, even if the products are dangerous or the speech is unpopular. The Second Amendment protects commerce in arms. And the Due Process Clause prohibits states from punishing one private party for the conduct of someone else.

All of that is reason enough to invalidate New Jersey’s new statute. But there is an even more obvious problem with A1765: It is squarely preempted by federal law. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several state and local governments sought to use novel applications of common law theories like negligence and nuisance to impose civil liability on manufacturers and sellers of firearms and ammunition when third parties misused their products. Congress saw these lawsuits for what they were: unconstitutional efforts to stamp out lawful and constitutionally protected activity. To end such incursions, Congress enacted the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”) in 2005 by wide margins on a substantially bipartisan basis. The PLCAA expressly prohibits and preempts state-law civil actions “brought by any person against a manufacturer or seller of [firearms or ammunition] … for damages, punitive damages, injunctive or declaratory relief, abatement, restitution, fines, or penalties, or other relief, resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of [firearms or ammunition] by the person or a third party.”

These public nuisance statutes are intended to go around the PLCAA, and lawmakers have explicitly acknowledged that. As Clement pointedly notes, “while the state may get credit for its candor, that does not make its law any more consistent with the protections afforded by Congress and the Constitution.”

These public nuisance laws have been a giant middle finger to the gun industry, the Constitution, and Congress, and as long as the courts New York, New Jersey, and Delaware to get away it more Democrat-controlled states will decide to do the same. The end goal isn’t about accountability for those responsible for criminal acts. It’s an end to the firearms industry, one blue-state verdict and gun company bankruptcy at a time.