There are two ways to look at the verdict by a Milwaukee jury finding a gun store liable in the wounding of two police officers. The hopeful view is that it will come to be seen as a landmark case that will prompt more litigation against negligent gun dealers and gunmakers.
More likely, the case will remain an outlier. Since 2005, when Congress bestowed unique protections on the gun industry, it has been nearly impossible to discipline even the most negligent actors in court. This case was the first finding of negligence - and only the second such case nationwide to reach a jury - since the firearms industry won its broad immunity. The law itself needs to be changed.
Indeed, about the time that the Milwaukee state court jury ordered Badger Guns to pay nearly $6 million for its complicity in an illegal gun sale to a straw purchaser, the call for reform was being sounded at Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. “Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers. And we need to stand up and say: Enough of that,” said Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as she took Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) to task for his vote in favor of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.
The measure was pushed by the National Rifle Association as lawsuits were being aimed at the firearms industry. It gave gun sellers and makers unprecedented immunity from liability for misuse of their products. There are exceptions, including for knowingly illegal sales or sales made despite knowledge that a gun will be used to commit a crime. But the law makes cases even under the narrow exceptions difficult to bring or win. The Milwaukee case, pursued by lawyers from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, succeeded largely because it featured unusual documentation: a video showing the straw purchase as it unfolded with the knowledge and assistance of the store clerk. No one can say whether the verdict will hold up on appeal.
Frivolous lawsuits should not be encouraged, and legislation is a better route than litigation to bring about fundamental reform in gun policy. But the gun industry’s sweeping immunity, enjoyed by no other industry in the United States, has stood in the way of legitimate lawsuits, preventing victims from getting - or even having their day in court to argue for - deserved compensation.