NJ Senate panel votes for plan to sue gun industry for damages
TRENTON – State senators voted Monday to advance one part of the latest gun-reform package advocated by Gov. Phil Murphy, a bill that would allow the attorney general to sue gun makers and retailers for damages for endangering public health and safety.
In the plan’s current incarnation, the state wouldn’t even have to show the gun industry purposely endangered people. But it’s unclear what the final legislation will look like, as its sponsor is conferring with acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin on possible changes.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-3 to release the bill, S1893, with the understanding that changes are coming.
'We've got to do something'
“This bill is essential to stemming the flow of illegal guns into New Jersey and ensuring basic product safety and marketing standards are met – and finally holding bad actors within the gun industry accountable for the harm that they’ve helped cause,” said Jenifer Gonzalez, a volunteer with the New Jersey chapter of Moms Demand Action.
Advocates for the change say a 2005 federal law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, granted gun makers and dealers an exemption from being held liable when crimes are committed with their products – an immunity from civil lawsuits unique to that industry that must be stopped.
“There’s overwhelming sentiment that we’ve got to do something to hold the gun manufacturers and industry accountable,” said Diane Dresdale, gun violence prevention chair for the Essex County chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.
Making NJ the national gun czar
Rob Nixon, a lobbyist for the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs and National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the proposal is unconstitutional. He said it’s akin to holding Ford responsible if someone drives drunk and kills someone.
“The attorney general would basically become a gun czar with national reach to sue out of existence individuals that are properly engaging in interstate commerce with a lawful practice,” Nixon said.
The bill is similar to one enacted in New York being challenged in court.
Under the proposal, the state attorney general could seek remedies for public nuisance violations committed by firearms companies, including abatement or other injunctive relief of the activity creating the public nuisance, damages and attorney’s fees and costs.
Microstamping the next focus
“While we desperately need federal legislation, this measure will allow the State Attorney General to take action and seek damages for shootings here in New Jersey,” said Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “We must do everything we can to stop this, which starts with holding those responsible accountable for their actions.”
Ruiz is due to join Platkin and leadership from Brady, the gun violence prevention organization, at an event Tuesday at a Newark Police Department shooting range for a live demonstration of microstamping technology, which can be used to trace bullet casings to the gun from which they were discharged.
One of the bills in Murphy’s guns package would require microstamping technology for newly manufactured semi-automatic pistols sold in the state.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee either voted against the bill or were absent.
“The bill as it currently exists I think completely detaches any notion of culpability from liability,” said Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris. “It eliminates our basic principles of due process.”
“I think the legislation can be molded so there aren’t constitutional defects,” said Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, who along with all other Democrats on the panel backed it. “And quite frankly, the gun industry does have a lot of responsibility for this. Sometimes there has to be some internal reform by the manufacturer.”