Hillary Clinton pounded Sen. Bernie Sanders for his gun rights record during the first Democratic presidential debate, all but calling him a BFF of the NRA.
Clinton’s argument was that Sanders’ support for the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which prohibited lawsuits against gun sellers and manufacturers for the unlawful misuse of a firearm, means that he isn’t serious about stemming gun violence in America.
With his vote, Clinton charged, Sanders supplied immunity from liability to the only industry in America that has it. “Everybody else has to be accountable but not the gun manufacturers,” she said. As a senator, Clinton had voted against the bill.
She might not have been aware that within hours of her comments, that law — long considered nearly insurmountable — had taken a major hit. A Milwaukee jury awarded two police officers more than $5 million in damages, holding the owners of a gun store negligent for selling a semi-automatic pistol purchased through a straw buyer.
One of the officers, Graham Kunisch, now retired, was said to not show any emotion when the civil verdict was reached, according to the New York Times. He couldn’t, his lawyer said, because of the brain injury he suffered after being shot in the head by the gun.
Staff at Badger Guns, the defendant, should have been more suspicious that the pistol was being bought for an 18-year-old who stood alongside the straw buyer, attorneys argued. The younger man, now serving 80 years for shooting the policemen, strode into the store with the buyer, helped pick out the gun, left the store to get more cash together for the purchase, and watched as the straw buyer fumbled filling out the paperwork. On the form, the buyer admitted that he wasn’t the intended owner but then changed his answer.
Red flags had been everywhere, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued. The jury agreed. That almost never happens in America. One of the reasons it doesn’t is a 2005 law that Clinton says she intends to repeal (and that Sanders agrees needs to be revisited).
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act passed after major lobbying by the National Rifle Association. George W. Bush signed it. To the gun lobby, the bill was seen as necessary to protect the gun dealers and manufacturers from being bankrupted by a slew of cases being filed nationwide at the time.
Gun safety advocates had a strategy to move manufacturers toward devoting more attention to safety features on firearms and for sellers to improve ways to ensure that they were selling to legal buyers.
The idea was to treat gun safety as a matter of public health. Car manufacturers, after all, hadn’t eagerly added seatbelts and other safety devices to vehicles. They did so under public pressure and after being held accountable by the courts.
Passage of the immunity law circumvented that approach to the manufacture and sale of firearms.
But times have changed in the decade since the law was passed. The public is all too aware of the toll of firearm violence: dead children slaughtered in mass shootings, women murdered because men with records of domestic violence aren’t stopped from buying guns, a yearly toll of 19,000 gun suicides. Bloodshed is moving the needle on the question of liability for the gun industry. But only a smidgen.
The NRA has filled people’s heads with the nonsense that it is unfair to expect a seller to know whether a gun he sells will be used later in a crime. Really? Even if the gun is sold to a known criminal, someone under age or a person with a record of domestic violence?
What’s missing are the other pieces of smart gun safety. Gun shows should no longer be places where guns are bought and sold without any scrutiny. The tracking of guns that wind up at crime scenes must improve. Records of who should be barred from ownership need to be readily accessible and comprehensive. And the public needs to come to grips with the fact that there are no magic formulas to predict who might act out violently with a gun due to a mental health condition. Most people with mental illness are not violent.
A great sense of responsibility ought to come with being licensed to sell a product designed to take human life. It’s far past time that gun manufacturers and sellers come to grips with that moral and civic duty.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at email@example.com.)