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New York law that extends liability for gun violence spurs industry suit

The firearms trade organization says the New York law conflicts with federal law designed to insulate gun companies from lawsuits over how their products are used by third parties.

(CN) — Fearing “imminent prosecution” and seeking to avoid a situation where the industry is inundated with lawsuit after lawsuit, several major players in the firearms industry banded together Thursday to challenge a New York law that would hold them responsible for gun violence.

Signed in July by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, the law known in the Legislature as Senate Bill 7196 alters state nuisance laws so that both the state and individuals injured by gun violence can sue gun companies for negligence. In creating the law, New York directly challenged federal statute intended to insulate the gun industry from such lawsuits.

Led now by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry says the effects of the law can be felt nationwide, affecting about 97% of companies in the country that hold federal firearms licenses to make and deal in firearms.

“There is, in effect, no way for them to comply with New York’s law,” the complaint states. “Any (federal firearms licensee) could be held liable even for fully lawful conduct … if a judge or a jury in New York later deemed that lawful conduct to be ‘unreasonable,’ or to have ‘contributed’ to a dangerous ‘condition’ in New York — a vague standard that the Act does not define.”

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys with the firm Shook, Hardy and Bacon. Along with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, plaintiffs include an ammunition company, several of the top gun manufacturers and some firearm retailers.

In 2005, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that prevents civil lawsuits against gun companies when a third-party misuses a firearm.

As the industry notes, the law was passed following a dismissed New York state lawsuit that sought to place blame of illegal gun trafficking on handgun manufacturers.

“New York is now trying to accomplish through legislation what it was unable to accomplish through litigation,” the complaint states.

Members of the gun industry said the law violates the U.S. Constitution's due process clause as well as the Dormant Commerce Clause, on top of being federally preempted.

In a statement, Lawrence Keane, general counsel for foundation plaintiff, said that the gun industry works with authorities on the issue of gun crimes and the New York law was an attack on the right to keep and bear arms.

“Opening up members of the firearm industry to a torrent of baseless civil lawsuits is — as it was in the past — an effort to impose radical gun control policies by litigating the forceful bankruptcy of companies,” Keane said.

The law, Keane said, went into effect September 1. In the meantime, New Jersey lawmakers have introduced a similar lawsuit in their state.

Describing PLCAA as a usurpation of states’ rights to sue the firearm industry, New York Attorney General Letitia James vowed to mount an aggressive defense of the statute.

“Once again, the gun lobby is trying to exert total control over this country and thwart common-sense efforts to protect lives,” James said in a statement.

The New York Attorney General Office did not return a request for comment.

In the meantime, the gun companies asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction that would halt the attorney general from enforcing the law.

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