On Sunday, CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed Vermont senator and Democratic president candidate Bernie Sanders on his support for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA. As a senator, Sanders voted for the law, which shields gun and ammunition manufacturers, distributors, and dealers from liability when their products are used criminally. (Many Democrats, including then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, opposed the bill.) Explaining his vote, Sanders said:
If somebody has a gun and it falls into the hands of a murderer and the murderer kills somebody with a gun, do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible? Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer. That is not what a lawsuit should be about.
This answer is dishonest and obfuscatory for two reasons. First and most obviously, hammers are materially different from firearms. The gun Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre sent 154 bullets through 20 children and six adults in 264 seconds. With a hammer, Lanza could not have done a fraction of that damage. Sanders’ analogy is simply inane.
Second, and more importantly, it makes good legal sense to hold gun and ammunition manufacturers and sellers to a higher standard of care than hardware stores. Before the PLCAA, many states did exactly that, making gun sellers liable for civil suits if they negligently sold a firearm to someone who later committed a crime. Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, gun sellers may be more likely to perform thorough background checks on all their customers to keep their guns out of the hands of potential murderers. (Even if their guns were still used criminally, gun sellers could argue that they weren’t negligent because they performed the background check.) But the PLCAA wiped out gun liability in all 50 states, rendering them invalid except for a few narrow exceptions.
To see just how cruel the PLCAA is, consider its effect on one family’s lawsuit against the online retailers who sold James Holmes the weapons he used to kill 12 people and injure 70 in Aurora, Colorado. The family sued Lucky Gunner for selling 4,300 rounds of ammunition to Holmes online without performing so much as a background check. These bullets were later fired off into the bodies of 82 people. The family accused Gunner of negligently entrusting Holmes with so much ammunition without looking into his mental condition. They lost. The PLCAA blocked their suit from even going to a jury.
Perhaps Sanders believes that gun and ammunition sellers should receive total immunity from these kinds of lawsuits, and should have no legal incentive to perform comprehensive background checks on their customers. But if that’s his position, he should be honest about it. The PLCAA blocks states from holding gun sellers to a higher standard of care than other retailers. It bars victims of mass shootings from seeking justice against the businesses that enable massacres. If Sanders really supports that, he owes it to voters to stop using misleading, asinine anologies and actually explain why.