What is the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and Why Does Public Citizen Support Overturning It?
By Lexi Pozonsky, Congress Watch Legal Intern
The ability to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable in court for misdeeds is an essential tool for protecting consumers and the public from unsafe products and unfair practices. Under a statute passed in 2005, however, gun manufacturers, among others in the gun industry, are largely immune from legal liability, which has added an additional roadblock to curbing the epidemic of gun violence in America.
At the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, dozens of American localities brought nuisance lawsuits against handgun manufacturers, alleging that the manufacturers’ marketing and distribution practices unreasonably interfered with public safety. The lawsuits did not seek to restrict individuals’ right to buy or possess handguns, but to recoup financial losses associated with gun violence, including for police and emergency services.
After intense lobbying by the industry, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a law that provides broad legal protection to the gun industry from nearly all legal claims. Immunity from liability has allowed gun manufacturers to market their dangerous products without risk of being held accountable for the consequences of their actions. But it isn’t just gun manufacturers that enjoy this legal protection. PLCAA also immunizes gun and ammunition distributors, dealers, importers and their respective trade associations from liability. This blanket protection over an entire industry is unique to the gun industry.
The ability to bring lawsuits against bad actors in any industry plays a crucial role in public safety and injury prevention. For example, lawsuits against the tobacco, automotive, and pharmaceutical industries based on harm that their products caused to the public, “triggered significant, industry-wide safety changes.” Sometimes, even the threat of litigation can force an industry to rethink its marketing strategies. It’s possible that the threat of litigation could also pressure firearm dealers to be more rigorous in the way they conduct background checks or pressure gun manufacturers to implement simple safety measures to prevent accidental shootings.
The Threat of Legal Liability Makes Consumers Safer
Gun violence permeates American society. In 2020 alone, gun violence killed more than 43,000 Americans and nearly 23 million guns were purchased, a 65% increase from 2019. The U.S. gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than that of other high-income nations and a staggering 84 percent of global firearm deaths occurred in the U.S. Moreover, gun violence in America disproportionately affects people of color and women. Each day on average, 26 Black Americans are killed by guns and 104 experience non-fatal firearm injuries. And women are five times more likely to be killed by an abusive partner when the abuser owns or has access to a gun.
Never before or since has Congress afforded an entire industry with blanket immunity from civil lawsuits. And the impact of wholesale immunity for the gun industry on America is clear. Because of PLCAA, victims of gun violence are unable to hold accountable gun manufacturers who fail to implement safety innovations or gun sellers whose lax sales practices put dangerous firearms in the hands of criminals and abusers.
Why Public Citizen Supports PLCAA Repeal
Public Citizen has been fighting for 50 years to protect individuals’ access to the civil justice system. PLCAA, however, allows gun manufacturers to escape liability, leaving those who have been harmed by their actions without recourse. Therefore, we call on Congress to address systemic gun violence and repeal this harmful “get-out-of-jail-free” card for the gun industry.
There is momentum to solve this problem, thankfully. Since taking office, President Joe Biden has issued executive orders instructing the Department of Justice to stop illegal gun trafficking across states and crack down on self-assembled ghost guns. And, President Joe Biden has called on Congress to repeal PLCAA.
Public Citizen strongly supports passage of the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act, which would repeal PLCAA and restore the right of people to use the civil justice system to seek legal remedies against gun manufacturers. Join President Biden in urging Congress to take the first step in getting the scourge of gun violence out of our country by repealing PLCAA by passing the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act. You can add your voice here to call on Congress to repeal PLCAA.