Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act

By:  Joe Biden, Jr.
Date: March 2, 2004
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I rise today to make plain my strong opposition to the bill under consideration today, S. 1805, the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act." Let me state at the outset, I support the rights of law-abiding citizens to own and appropriately use firearms. But this bill has nothing to do with protecting those citizens' rights. Instead, this bill is about protecting rogue gun manufacturers that sell defective products and rogue gun dealers who turn a blind eye to suspicious sales and thefts.

The shorthand title for the bill is accurate, the Gun Industry Immunity Act. I won't mince words, this bill gives an entire industry a free pass. In exchange for that free pass, hundreds of thousands of victims across the county will confront closed doors at the courthouse. While I recognize that the bill carves out a set of exceptions of permissible law suits, this is cold comfort. The exceptions are extremely narrow and do not provide reasonable opportunities for legitimate lawsuits to proceed. I am deeply troubled by the fact that this bill will stop pending and future civil lawsuits against the gun industry, including those filed in the wake of the DC Sniper shootings.

As the American public well knows, prior to their killing spree, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo allegedly obtained a Bushmaster rifle from a store in Tacoma, Washington, the infamous Bull's Eye Shooter Supply Shop. This rifle was one of 238 weapons that disappeared from the store's inventory over a three year period. More than fifty of those same "missing" firearms turned up in crime traces. Civil suits have been filed against Bull's Eye alleging that the store was negligent by failing to keep track of its weapons, and against the gun manufacturer alleging that continuing to supply such dangerous weapons to a store that cannot maintain accurate track is also negligent conduct. But under today's bill, these allegations do not fit the narrow exceptions of permissible suits. Legal experts David Boies and Lloyd N. Cutler, as well as the Congressional Research Service, opine that these sniper suits will be dismissed immediately if the President signs the gun industry immunity act. In real terms this means that the snipers' victims, including Denise Johnson, widow of the Montgomery County bus driver Conrad Johnson, and the family of James "Sonny" Buchanan, who was gunned down while mowing the lawn, will have no remedies.

Another lawsuit that will be derailed if the gun industry immunity bill passes is a 1999 case against a gun dealer who repeatedly supplied a so-called "straw purchaser" with handguns, one of which killed 9-year old Nafis Jefferson in Philadelphia, PA. I was struck by what Nafis' mother said when advised that her lawsuit may be dismissed. She stated, "Before this happened, I believed in the American dream. You work hard, you have a family, you have a good life. This-this has devastated me. I understand commerce, but there also has to be common sense."

Under the gun industry immunity bill it is quite likely that a pending suit filed by the families of two New Jersey police officers will be dismissed. The officers' families have sued the gun dealer who sold the gun used to shoot them, one of twelve guns the dealer sold in one transaction, in cash, in circumstances so suspicious that the dealer subsequently called to alert the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Yet rather than having the careful consideration of the facts by judge and jury, today, Congress will decide that Mr. McGuire's and Mr. Lemongello's families cannot pursue any remedies in civil court.

A family in Massachusetts will also be denied a right to sue should the Gun Industry Immunity Bill pass. Twenty-six year old Danny Guzman was killed with a 9 mm Kahr Arms gun. The gun was one of a dozen taken from Kahr's unsecured factory, some by the manufacturer's own employee with a criminal record and history of drug abuse. The guns were taken before serial numbers had been stamped on them, making them very difficult to trace. Eventually, a young child found the gun used in Mr. Guzman's death behind an apartment building close to the scene of the shooting. A Massachusetts court found that the suit alleges valid negligence and public nuisance claims against the gun manufacturer and it is set for trial. Yet today's bill would deny Mr. Guzman's family their day in court.

Some have characterized the lawsuits against the gun manufacturers and dealers as "junk" suits that are cluttering our court houses and bankrupting the industry and thus, justifying this extraordinary solution of blanket civil immunity. But our local, State and Federal judges and court personnel are no where to be found in this debate. No letters or reports document an inundation of firearm lawsuits plugging up the halls of justice. Furthermore, there is no evidence that our State and Federal courts cannot efficiently and effectively manage the pending forearm lawsuits. Indeed, the opposite is true. Look no further than a recently issued opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in which the court addressed the certified question on whether state law created a duty to protect victims of handgun violence from injury caused by illegal gun trafficking. This Court wrote a careful and balanced opinion that fully addressed the issue. As a former Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I am well aware of the complicated and deliberate process courts follow to develop tort law. I am not persuaded that Congress should tread into these waters so adeptly managed by our nation's judges and juries.

Gun manufacturers and dealers are not above the law. The gun industry Immunity bill is a radical and unprecedented attempt to undercut common tort law, usurp the responsibilities of judges and juries and most importantly, deny worthy victims of their day in court. I urge my colleagues to vote against S. 1805, and thank the distinguished Senator from Rhode Island for his hard work fighting this bill.

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