Democratic lawmakers seeking to pass new gun safety measures are targeting laws that protect the firearm industry from civil litigation in a push that could cost dealers and manufacturers in expensive court cases.
Colorado lawmakers this week took a step toward allowing the victims or families of those injured in gun crimes to sue firearm dealers and manufacturers for their role in shootings, and requiring companies in the firearm industry to create and implement a standard of conduct in sales.
The measure passed the state Senate, where two Democrats joined Republicans in opposition. It now heads to the state House, where Democrats have signaled they have the votes to muscle it through.
“Colorado has had to deal with some of the worst mass shootings in the country, dating back all the way to Columbine,” state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis (D), one of the bill’s chief sponsors, told Pluribus News. “We have just a horrific record when it comes to doing anything about mass shootings.”
Allowing residents to sue over damages caused by firearms, Jaquez Lewis said, would force the gun industry to hold itself more accountable — before courts impose hefty judgements.
“The way that we’re going to enforce it is, someone can now sue, so if a gun shop or an online manufacturer or someone doesn’t follow the law and the horrific occurs, the families can take that business to court,” Jaquez Lewis said. “We felt like it was really the only way that we were going to allow gun violence victims to be able to go to civil court.”
Colorado is one of a half-dozen states considering measures this year to overturn immunity laws that protect manufacturers and dealers from being held liable when someone misuses their product. Gun safety advocates say that protection is unlike anything granted to manufacturers of any other product.
“For years, they’ve enjoyed a type of immunity that literally no other industry in America has when their products cause harm,” said Sam Levy, senior counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, a group funded largely by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “These laws are really aimed at bad actors in the industry itself, the upstream sources of weapons that ultimately become crime weapons.”
New York became the first state to specifically allow civil lawsuits to target gun companies in 2021. New Jersey, Delaware and California followed in 2022. This year, lawmakers in states where Democrats hold majorities — including Michigan and Maryland — have proposed similar bills.
Opponents of the measure say removing immunity would allow civil nuisance suits aimed at companies that have broken no laws themselves. In a paper exploring the history of immunity laws published this month, David Kopel, research director at the conservative Independence Institute, said measures like Colorado’s “are plainly designed to eliminate American firearms businesses through litigation costs.”
Spokespeople for the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.
Once a third rail in American politics, gun safety measures have become a top policy priority since mass shootings have taken place across the nation — and especially in Colorado. In just the last two years, mass shooters have attacked a supermarket in Boulder, a birthday party in Colorado Springs and an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs.
The son of one of the 10 people killed at the King Soopers store in Boulder filed a lawsuit this week against Sturm, Ruger and Co., the maker of the gun used in the attack, for deceptive marketing practices.
Gun industry companies are granted immunity under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 law signed by President George W. Bush that shields manufactures and dealers from being held liable for crimes committed with their firearms. Colorado is one of three states that add extra protection that allows firearms manufacturers to recover legal fees if a defendant’s case is dismissed.
Democratic lawmakers spotlighted Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, the parents of a young woman murdered in an Aurora movie theater in 2014. The family sued gun dealers, a suit that was thrown out — leaving them with $200,000 in legal fees they owed to the companies they sued.
“The gun industry takes in about $9 billion a year while their products injure and kill 100,000 Americans,” Levy said. “They lack that incentive that other industries face, which is real accountability from civil suits.”
Jaquez Lewis added: “Why are we treating these businesses different from any other?”