Those high-profile cases spurred municipal governments in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and a host of other cities to bring similar lawsuits, Barnes said, but most were dismissed. She cited legislation adopted before the 2005 law that made it harder for local governments to access federal databases of crime gun information as a factor.
In light of the municipal cases and other litigation, gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, advocated for tort reform. Victor Schwartz, general counsel to the American Tort Reform Association, said advocates at the time decried what they saw as "regulation through litigation."
"If people couldn't get bills through Congress or states for gun control, the people that wanted to regulate guns thought one way to regulate them is to expose them to tort law," said Schwartz, who wasn't involved in advocacy surrounding the legislation at the time.
Gun-control and gun-rights advocates agree that the PLCAA was successful in curbing litigation. Josh Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence represented plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to hold gun makers liable for a 1999 shooting at a Jewish community center. The defendants successfully moved to dismiss the lawsuit after the 2005 law passed.
"It's also very clear that a lot of people's cases were chilled," Horwitz said.
But Jeffrey Malsch of Pisciotti, Malsch & Buckley in New York, who represents firearms companies, insisted the 2005 law "gave a means to avoid costly discovery in cases that were getting dismissed anyway." The law still gave plaintiffs room to sue if, for instance, a retailer improperly sold a gun, he said.
Several pending cases test the limits of the PLCAA. Malsch is defending a gun distributor in New York state trial accused of knowingly supplying guns to a dealer who ran a gun trafficking scheme. The trial judge dismissed the case but an appeals court reinstated it, finding that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that the defendants knew they were in violation of federal gun laws. Lowy, of the Brady Center, is a lead attorney for the plaintiff.
Lowy also represents the family of a murder victim who sued a gun dealer in Alaska for supplying the killer with a gun. That case was also dismissed under the PLCAA but is on appeal before the Alaska Supreme Court.
Even if Congress does roll back the PLCAA, Horwitz wouldn't expect a flood of new cases. As municipal governments found a decade ago, suing gun companies can be difficult and expensive, he said. But Horwitz said he favors repealing the law to at least give plaintiffs a chance to make their case.
Malsch advised that, if the law is repealed, potential plaintiffs and their lawyers should remember the trouble plaintiffs had before the law went into effect. "I think there were enough cases dismissed without the [law] that would give them pause," he said.
Zoe Tillman writes for The National Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate.