No immunity for gun sales

July 29, 2005

THEY CALL it a "straw" sale. A gun is bought by a criminal's accomplice, often with cash. Dealers may choose to look the other way. Manufacturers can ignore the practice, too. Under just these circumstances, a West Virginia pawnshop sold 12 semiautomatic handguns five years ago. One of those guns was used to wound two New Jersey police officers in 2001. Luckily for the officers, they had some legal recourse; they sued the pawnshop and recently won a $1 million settlement - and the action led to local reforms over how guns are sold.

Incredibly, some members of Congress want to prevent other victims from doing the same thing by granting legal immunity to gun dealers and makers. Legal scholars say the proposal now pending in the U.S. Senate would give an unprecedented level of protection to a single industry. It would, for instance, have prevented the D.C. sniper victims from recently winning a $2 million settlement from the Washington state gun dealer who couldn't account for the snipers' assault rifle that was traced to his store.

The National Rifle Association and other supporters argue that manufacturers could be bankrupted by frivolous lawsuits. They claim that the gun industry is already shelling out $200 million in legal fees. And they fret that it's criminals, not gun makers, who should be held accountable.

But none of these arguments holds up to close examination. There have been relatively few gun-related lawsuits, frivolous or otherwise (an estimated 57 of 10 million tort cases over 10 years were filed against gun industry defendants), so the cost estimate appears dubious. And those lawsuits don't hold companies responsible for another's criminal actions, but for their own negligence. In other words, a defendant must engage in some intentionally reckless conduct to be held legally accountable.

Banning these lawsuits would do more than punish the victims of gun violence. It would remove a powerful incentive for the gun industry to reform the way it does business. Companies might decide not to impose stricter sales guidelines, for instance, or pursue safety-related technology because there's no danger of civil action.

This proposal was brought to the Senate floor this week when far more pressing business - including the defense authorization bill - was deferred. Such is the absolute hold the NRA has on Congress. Make no mistake, the legislation does not expand or contract the legitimate rights of ordinary Americans to own guns. It merely shields negligent gun dealers from ever being held accountable for behavior that falls just short of a crime.

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