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July 24, 2003

Bill to Limit Lawsuits Against Gun Industry Violates Constitution

S. 659 Oversteps Congressional Authority, Runs Afoul of Tenth Amendment, Public Citizen Warns Lawmakers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congress does not have the constitutional authority to enact legislation that would prohibit lawsuits brought under state law that seek damages against gun manufacturers and distributors based on misuse of their products, Public Citizen told lawmakers today. The legislation, S. 659, is currently pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a letter to Committee Chairman Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Public Citizen lawyers urged the committee to hold hearings on the constitutional concerns raised by the bill. The U.S. House of Representatives passed an identical bill in April without holding a hearing.

The bill has three constitutional flaws. First, in the absence of findings, supported by evidence presented to Congress, that demonstrate that state-law suits against the gun industry have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, the legislation would violate the Commerce Clause. As noted in Public Citizen’s letter, the fact that S. 659 is pending before the Judiciary Committee, rather than the Commerce Committee, suggests that the bill is not really about protecting commerce.

Second, S. 659 would apply retroactively to immunize the gun industry not only from future suits, but also to prohibit suits based on injuries already sustained and to require dismissal of any pending cases against it. By eliminating state-law legal claims without providing any federal remedy in return, this aspect of the bill threatens to violate due process.

Third, the legislation runs counter to the Tenth Amendment’s reservation of powers for the states. The Amendment lies at the heart of our federalist system of government.

"Unfortunately, when traditional Republican values, such as protection of states’ rights, come up against contemporary Republican contributors, such as big business or, in this case, the gun lobby, states’ rights take a back seat," said Alan Morrison, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group.

S. 659 would set a dangerous precedent. Public Citizen is concerned that if Congress were constitutionally able to ban state-law suits to shield the gun industry from liability, it could eliminate other state-law claims relating to any products, services or duties, without providing any federal program or remedy to replace it. "Fortunately, our Constitution does not allow Congress to do this," Morrison said.

To view a copy of the letter, click here.

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