Last night, as the five candidates for the Democratic party’s nomination filed on stage for the first debate, the stakes were undeniably high. But the stakes were even higher for the nation, which is reeling from yet another tragic shooting.
After a spate of mass shootings, including the recent rampage at Umpqua Community College that left nine dead and as many wounded, the topic of gun violence has received considerable traction within both the Democratic and Republican race. While much of the conversation continues to focus on the shooters, gun dealers, as the first line of defense against criminals, are critical to gun violence prevention. Most gun dealers act reasonably and sensibly when transferring firearms. But approximately 5% of gun dealers nation-wide supply 90% of the firearms used in crime every year—and they often get away with it.
Why? Because the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (or “PLCAA” for short) arguably immunizes nearly all of these dealers from the most basic duty in a civilized society—the duty to act with reasonable care. Passed and signed into law in 2005, the gun lobby called PLCAA “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years.” PLCAA gives the corporate gun industry protection that no other industry enjoys. Negligence law requires car manufacturers, food producers, medical doctors, and everyone else to use reasonable care to not cause injury to others—and if the failure to use reasonable care causes another person harm, the harmed person can hold the negligent actor accountable. But, at least for gun dealers, PLCAA changes this framework. Due to PLCAA, in many cases, the companies that make and sell the most dangerous product—guns—can escape accountability for negligent supplying criminals or for refusing to implement life-saving safety features into firearms.
Two candidates—Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley—recently released comprehensive gun violence mitigation plans, both of which promise to seek repeal of PLCAA, and have led the charge to alter the course of gun violence during the primary season. At the same time, Bernie Sanders has repeated the gun lobby’s rhetoric on PLCAA. In July, Sanders appeared on CNN and conflated two entirely different scenarios: “[i]f somebody has a gun and it falls into the hands of a murderer and the murderer kills somebody … do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible? Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible.” Sanders’ argument misses the point. For one, hammer manufacturers don’t have immunity from negligence. But more importantly, guns, unlike hammers, are uniquely designed, manufactured, and sold for the purposes of injuring or killing. Gun dealers should take the highest degree of care to prevent their guns from ending up in dangerous hands, an important distinction which both O’Malley and Clinton have embraced.
Last night’s performance only complicated the PLCAA debate. When moderator Anderson Cooper pressed Clinton about her fellow competitors’ stance on gun violence, she denounced Senator Sanders for being “not at all” tough enough on issues of gun violence, while reiterating her plan to hold manufacturers and dealers accountable by repealing PLCAA. Sanders, meanwhile, finally admitted that “where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action.” Yet, at the same time, Sanders, unlike Clinton and O’Malley, never pledged to seek repeal of PLCAA. Instead, he lamented that PLCAA was “a large and complicated bill,” and suggested his vote in support of the legislation could be explained by the fact that he represented a rural state, Vermont. But there was nothing complicated about creating special rules for the gun industry, which are more lax than the rules for any other American industry. Clinton suggested moments later, “I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward … that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America.” Vermont’s other Senator, Patrick Leahy, apparently also had no difficulty understanding the aims of the legislation, or realizing that protecting gun companies who supply criminals could not only harm people in Montpelier, but also in Boston or Chicago, as he voted against PLCAA.
The Brady Center’s Legal Action Project is currently engaged in numerous cases across the country—including in Missouri, New York, Indiana, and Pennsylvania—to hold negligent dealers accountable for the heartbreaking and often fatal, repercussions of their actions. Though the gun industry had hoped that PLCAA would shield it from liability, the Brady Center has nonetheless provided victims the chance to have their day in court. But justice isn’t always served. Courts have sometimes interpreted PLCAA as allowing irresponsible gun dealers to evade liability for putting guns in dangerous hands. All of the candidates on stage would have the opportunity to seek repeal of PLCAA if they were elected—yet only two have pledged to do so. But any candidate who is truly serious about preventing gun violence should make repealing PLCAA a priority. American lives depend on it.