A bill that would limit liability for gun makers and dealers in civil court cases could make it harder to punish those who sell firearms later used in crimes, say anti-violence advocates.
The bill, AB 572, also would limit civil liability for ammunition manufacturers and firearm accessory manufacturers, distributors, importers, trade associations and sellers. While it would provide increased protection from lawsuits for several Wisconsin manufacturing companies, critics say it would offer too much protection for those who sell guns.
The bill comes as family members of at least some of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are suing Remington, the manufacturer of the gun used to kill 20 children and six adults at the Connecticut school.
Families are suing the maker of the Bushmaster XM-15 for wrongful death. They argue Remington recklessly marketed the AR-15-style rifle to civilians. But Remington’s lawyers argue the sale of the gun to the shooter’s mother was legal, despite its illegal use.
Remington filed for bankruptcy last year and the company was split up and acquired by several companies.
Bill author Rep. Gae Magnifici told WisPolitics.com the legislation is aimed at addressing what she called a nationwide push against the right to bear arms.
“The number one point on President Joe Biden’s ‘gun safety’ platform is to allow for frivolous lawsuits against firearm manufacturers for crimes committed by others,” the Dresser Republican said in an email. “Lawsuits against firearm manufacturers are one way the left is trying to restrict your rights.”
According to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms data, 1,806 federal firearms license holders in Wisconsin could be affected if the bill passes. But that number does not include firearm accessory manufacturers, as they do not need such licenses to produce their products.
Of those, 318 licenses belong to gun manufacturers, 1,401 belong to dealers and pawnbrokers and 10 belong to firearm and ammunition importers.
Wisconsin’s highest volume gun manufacturer, Henry Repeating Arms Co., produced 40,195 rifles and 16,299 shotguns during 2019 in Rice Lake, according to the latest ATF data.
AR-15-style gun maker Bravo Company USA in Hartland, Wisconsin’s second-highest volume gun maker, produced 9,748 rifles in 2019, according to ATF data.
A case was filed in 2019 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court against a West Allis gun dealer that sold a firearm later used in a crime. The case involves Milwaukee Police officer Brandon Baranowski, who was shot with a .22-caliber Ruger handgun that Baranowski alleges was purchased by a straw buyer.
Proponents of the bill argue it would make sure firearm manufacturers and dealers selling guns through legal means are not held accountable for the actions of criminals. They say criminal use of firearms is already illegal and there are ways to punish those criminals without punishing businesses that sell legal products.
Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel and vice president of legal for the anti-gun violence group Brady said the bill would only protect “bad” gun dealers and sellers.
“The fact is, good gun dealers don’t need special protection from the law and bad gun dealers don’t deserve it,” Lowy said.
Some proponents argue suing a gun manufacturer over illegal actions involving legally obtained guns is akin to suing a car maker when someone illegally uses a car as a deadly weapon.
Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police President Ryan Windorff said existing regulation on the gun and ammunition industry is sufficient. He added that suing manufacturers and dealers will do nothing to curb the “epidemic of gun violence we are seeing in Wisconsin, most notably in the city of Milwaukee.”
“Instead of blaming the gun, the focus should be on the individual who uses the gun to commit a crime or illegally obtains a gun and the vigorous prosecution of those crimes,” Windorff said.
But Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said he feels every business, regardless of their products, should be equally held accountable under the law. No specific businesses should be given special legal protections, he said.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the bill on Wednesday.
Sen. Van Wanggaard’s spokesman Scott Kelly told WisPolitics.com the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee plans to hold a public hearing on the Senate version of the bill next week. Wanggaard is chair of the committee, but Kelly said he has no comments on the bill or concerns raised by others yet.
The Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort Educational Fund is the only group registered in opposition of the bill so far.
Groups registered in favor of the bill include:
• National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc.
• National Rifle Association of America
• Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association
• Wisconsin Firearm Owners Inc.
• Wisconsin Gun Owners Inc.
The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.