Victims of shootings deserve their day in court

On Aug. 10, 1999, Buford Furrow, a white supremacist and mentally unstable parolee, entered the North Valley Jewish Community Center in the Los Angeles suburbs of Granada Hills and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle. 

Furrow wounded three young children, a camp counselor and a 68-year-old employee. After his rampage at the community center, he carjacked a woman at gunpoint and killed a postal worker, whom he saw as a “target of opportunity” because the postman was “non-white” and worked for the government.
Furrow was prohibited from possessing firearms due to a prior felony conviction. Moreover, he had been held in Washington state for mental health treatment only months earlier. But Furrow easily bought a Glock Model 26 from an unlicensed dealer at a gun show in Spokane, Wash. As a former gun dealer himself before his conviction, Burrow knew how to skirt federal and state gun laws, and he was able to amass numerous firearms over time, including pistols, rifles and even an Uzi-style machine gun.

In the wake of the Granada Hills shooting, some of the victims’ families challenged the practice of certain gun-makers and sellers who sold high volumes of weapons used in crime, by alleging that they had created a public nuisance. The families argued that gun manufacturers were acting negligently by knowingly selling huge quantities of firearms to a small minority of gun dealers — just 1 percent of dealers — who sold 57 percent of the guns that end up being used to commit criminal acts.

After filing their lawsuit in 1999, the Ninth Circuit ruled that there could be a valid nuisance claim against one of the gun manufacturers. In response to this case and others pending across the country, Congress passed legislation that provided all licensed manufacturers, distributors and dealers of firearms, as well as their trade associations, like the National Rifle Association (NRA), a special immunity from most lawsuits. And in so doing, the victims of the Granada Hills shooting — and victims all around the country — were denied their day in court.

This 2005 law — the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) — granted the gun industry immunity from civil liability in most negligence and products liability suits, and made the immunity retroactive, just for good measure. While there are listed exceptions in the PLCAA, in practice this law has been broadly interpreted and has stopped most negligence lawsuits in their tracks. The result is that — unlike automobile manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry or even tobacco companies — gun manufacturers and dealers can commit negligence with impunity.

In a letter sent to me after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., Alan Stepakoff, whose son was wounded in the North Valley Jewish Center shooting in 1999, explained how the PLCAA affected their case: “Even though we had an uphill battle, the gun manufacturers knew they had a problem and got Congress to take away our right to a trial by granting them total immunity. The U.S. Congress was so worried about the NRA ... that they were willing to take away peoples’ right to due process.”

At the time the PLCAA was before the Congress, then-Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), the chief Senate sponsor and an NRA board member, claimed that “this bill will not prevent a single victim from obtaining relief for wrongs done to them by anyone in the gun industry.” But the reality has been far different, and the PLCAA has cut off access to justice for gun victims from Los Angeles to Newtown.

Good gun companies don’t need special protection under the law, and bad companies certainly don’t deserve it. This is why I have introduced the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act, which would remove the immunity from liability for negligence enjoyed by one industry and one industry alone — weaponmakers. Letting the courts hear these cases will provide justice to victims while creating incentives for responsible business practices that will hopefully lead to a reduction in gun violence injuries and deaths.

We do not know what the outcome of the cases brought by North Valley Jewish Center victims or Newtown parents would have been because they have been denied the chance to find out. But it is clear that no industry — no matter how powerful their lobby  — deserves the right to act with reckless disregard for public safety.  

Schiff, a Democrat from California, is a former federal prosecutor.