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Gun violence victims can sue arms manufacturers, says new California law

Firearms


California Governor Gavin Newsom has signed a new law that empowers gun violence victims to file civil suits against the companies that manufactured the firearms used in the crimes, as the state finds newer ways to end the sordid chapter of gun slaughters and mass killings.

The move tightens gun laws in California, which has the strictest gun safety measures in the nation, according to the Giffords Law Center.

“To the victims of gun violence and their families: California stands with you. The gun industry can no longer hide from the devastating harm their products cause,” Newsom said in a news release.

A 2005 federal law protects gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits when the weapons they produce are used to commit crimes.

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The California Assembly Bill 1594 “utilises an exemption to the federal statute that allows gun makers or sellers to be sued for violations of state laws concerning the sale or marketing of firearms”, according to the California news release.

“Our kids, families and communities deserve streets free of gun violence and gun makers must be held accountable for their role in this crisis. Nearly every industry is held liable when people are hurt or killed by their products — guns should be no different,” the Governor was quoted as saying by the CNN.

California has allocated $156 million in gun violence prevention grants to support nearly 80 cities and non-profit organisations implementing anti-violence programmes tailored to their local communities.

High-profile shootings — including a racist mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket that targeted the Black community and the massacre at an Uvalde elementary school that took the lives of 19 students and their two teachers — have reignited national conversations on gun laws.

In June, President Joe Biden signed into law a measure, considered the most significant of federal legislation to address gun violence in 30 years since the 10-year assault weapons ban of 1994, which expired in 2005.

But the law fell short of banning any weapons. But the bipartisan legislation framed by 10 Republicans and Democrats each saw passage through both Houses of the Congress amid a public outcry to end gun violence even as the Supreme Court struck down a centuries-old New York gun law that wanted a statement of intent and purpose to carry concealed firearms in public.

The bipartisan legislation, however, failed to raise the age for buying guns to 21.

In California, Assembly member Phil Ting, who co-authored the bill, said that hitting the bottom line of gun manufacturers “may finally compel them to step up to reduce gun violence by preventing illegal sales and theft”.

“Gun violence is now the leading cause of death among kids and teens in the United States, surpassing car accidents. I see no better argument for stronger gun safety legislation,” Ting said.

“For far too long, the firearms industry has enjoyed federal immunity from civil lawsuits, providing them no incentive to follow our laws,” he said.

Gun makers and dealers in California will now be required to block firearms sales to anyone they have “reasonable cause to believe is at substantial risk” of using a gun illegally or of harming themselves or others, under a new law that Governor Newsom announced on Tuesday.

The National Rifle Association said the requirements are vague and represent an attempt to hold gun dealers and makers liable for the actions of others. The new law, the group said, “seeks to frustrate law-abiding gun owners” with the goal of driving gun makers and dealers “out of business with frivolous litigation”.

The state’s firearms industry’s standard of conduct, starting July 2023, will require those making, importing or selling guns to “take reasonable precautions” to make sure the weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands through sales or thefts.

That includes having “reasonable controls” to prevent sales to arms traffickers, straw buyers, those prohibited from owning guns, and anyone deemed to be at “substantial risk” of using the gun improperly, said local Texas daily the Ledger-Enquirer.

The law is patterned after a New York measure that took effect last year to skirt a 2005 federal law blocking most liability lawsuits against gun makers or dealers. The New York measure declared such violations a “public nuisance”, taking advantage of a federal exemption that allows lawsuits when gun makers break state or local laws regulating the sale and marketing of firearms.

Delaware and New Jersey just enacted similar laws, and all contain provisions requiring firearms dealers to act responsibly, said Tanya Schardt, senior counsel and director of state and federal policy at the Brady gun control advocacy organisation that sought the laws.

“There may be indicators or things that you see beyond just passing the background check that indicate to the dealer that they shouldn’t sell the gun,” she said.

“I would say the California law is more specific,” Schardt said.

“But substantively I think it creates the same set of requirements, the same standards with regards to engaging in safe business practices. It’s not asking someone to be psychic, but to take reasonable precautions in the same way that an automobile dealer could be liable for selling to a customer who is clearly drunk, for instance,” she said.

“It’s not creating liability, it’s not expanding liability beyond what’s reasonable … which is really the same standard that every other industry is measured against,” she said.

A federal judge in May had rejected a challenge to the New York law by gun manufacturers and sellers. Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, expects the California law will be challenged on the argument that it violates the federal law.

“The ability to be sued for doing something bad is already there,” he said, noting that gun makers and dealers are liable for any illegal activity.

“This is the anti-gun side’s way of looking for a deep pocket.”

“Nearly every industry is held liable when their products cause harm or injury. All except one – the gun industry,” Newsom said in a video message on Tuesday announcing that he had signed the bill on Monday. With the new law, he said, “gun makers will finally be accountable for their role in this crisis”.

California’s law allows gun makers and dealers to also be sued for alleged violations of other laws, including false advertising, unfair competition or deceptive acts or practices.

“Hitting their bottom line may finally compel them to step up to reduce gun violence by preventing illegal sales and theft,” said the bill’s author, Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting.

The law will also prohibit manufacturers and retailers from making, importing or selling guns or related products that are “abnormally dangerous and likely to create an unreasonable risk of harm”.

That could include kits for building untraceable “ghost guns,” “bump stocks” that increase the rate of fire for semi-automatic weapons, or “bullet button” assault weapons that allow for rapid reloading.

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