President Barack Obama's plan to use his executive authority to prevent gun violence came on the heels of proposed legislation intended to give more power to gunshot victims after the fact.
It's a plan with a tortured history. Amid skyrocketing homicide rates during the 1990s, frustrated victims, gun control advocates and state and local governments tried to hold gun makers and distributors accountable through civil lawsuits. Gun-rights groups responded by successfully pushing for limits on the legal liability gun makers and distributors could face in court.
The new legislation by Representative Adam Schiff, D-Calif., would undo provisions of that law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, or PLCAA. Schiff, who is working with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said gun makers don't deserve special immunity against civil litigation.
"It's time to roll back this protection as part of our larger effort on stopping gun violence in our country, and make everyoneincluding gun companies accountable for their actions," he said.
Obama on Jan. 16 announced a formal proposal for strengthening gun laws, signing 23 executive actions and urging Congress to require universal background checks and ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Regarding the PLCAA, its proponents insisted at the time that it wasn't intended to shut gun violence victims out of court; gun manufacturers and sellers, they argued, could still be held liable for negligence. But Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center's Legal Action Project, said the law has been interpreted in an "overly broad" way that shut out viable claims.
"The courts have found there's a conflict between the purposes of the law and the operative language of the law," Lowy said.
Even before the law, though, lawyers had a difficult time taking gun makers and distributors to court. Beginning in the 1980s, Lowy said, plaintiffs tried to sue manufacturers of inexpensive handguns commonly used in crimes and known as "Saturday night specials," arguing for absolute liability in those cases. Most courts rejected that theory, he said.
A number of big cases against gun makers and distributors made headlines during the 1990s. Plaintiffs didn't argue for an absolute rule of liability, Lowy said, but rather that gun companies should be held to the same duty of care as other parties.
New York solo practitioner Elisa Barnes brought cases accusing gun companies of negligently distributing guns, including one claim on behalf of the NAACP. The NAACP case made it to trial but a judge dismissed it in 2003 after finding that the group lacked standing to sue.