The Maryland General Assembly, with the support of Gov. Wes Moore, is prioritizing bills this legislative session that would bolster the state’s already strict laws regulating firearms — and for good reason. More than 50 mass shootings (defined for this count as a minimum of four people shot in a single incident, excluding the gunperson), have already occurred in 19 states and the District of Columbia just since the start of this year, including the shooting of five teenagers in Baltimore City on Jan. 4, one of whom died. As of Thursday, 88 people have been killed in 2023 in this country through such broad attacks, and 219 wounded. Hundreds more have been victims of smaller-scale shootings.
And while Maryland has the eighth strongest gun laws in the U.S., according to advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, we are tragically average in the number of people killed by guns: 13.5 per 100,000, compared with 13.6 for the country as a whole. Seventeen states are safer from gun deaths than we are, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
It’s no secret that Baltimore is the center of the state’s gun problem and that many of Maryland’s regulations won’t make much of a dent in city violence, which has already taken the lives of 26 people as of this writing. The guns the city is awash in are largely here illegally, having been trafficked in from surrounding states with more lax gun laws than ours. Until more states step up to prevent weapons from getting into the hands of irresponsible, criminal or mentally ill individuals, as Maryland has, we will continue to see a disproportionate share of gun victims.
Other states’ abdication of responsibility doesn’t relieve us of ours, however, so we’re glad to see the Maryland legislature consider ways to further ensure residents’ safety. Among the bill proposals are measures that would limit the sale and possession of firearms to those age 21 and over; and add bars, restaurants and sports arenas, among other public entertainment venues, to the list of places that guns can’t be carried in Maryland. But it’s a third bill that holds the most promise and faces the biggest battle; it would expand the circumstances under which a gun manufacturer can be sued for misuse of their weapons.
That bill, No. 113 in the Maryland Senate and No. 259 in the House, seeks to hold gun manufacturers accountable in certain circumstances through public nuisance claims. Such efforts actually have a long history in America, with varied success.
In the early 2000s, people seeking to reduce gun violence in the country brought public nuisance lawsuits against gun makers and sellers with mixed results, arguing that business tactics led to guns getting into the wrong hands, endangering the population. Gun manufacturers consequently pressured Congress — whose members were all too willing to listen — to put an end to lawsuits, resulting in the passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) in 2005, a devastating blow to gun safety advocates. The law made it nearly impossible to sue gun makers for criminal use of their products, unless the maker or seller knowingly violated a law themselves in the making or selling of the gun, a very difficult bar to overcome.
For the next five years, courts would largely find that public nuisance claims didn’t fall under that so-called “predicate exception,” and such claims slowed over the next decade after that. The tide began to turn, however, with the filing of a lawsuit against gun maker Remington by the families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which argued that the company could be held liable for “wrongful marketing.” The case was allowed to proceed in 2019 and ultimately settled for $73 million last year.
Several states put this strategy on the law books through the passage of public nuisance laws like the one Maryland hopes to enact, including New York, California, Delaware and New Jersey. But they’re on shaky ground. On Tuesday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing the enforcement of New Jersey’s law after finding it was in conflict with the federal PLCAA. That case is ongoing.
New Jersey’s setback shouldn’t stop Maryland from pursuing its own law, but it highlights the fact that what really needs to happen is for Congress to get out of the way and repeal the PLCAA. Forcing the industry to face consequences for how its products are used would put the onus back on those who deal in arms to figure out how to ensure their proper, legal use — for protection or hunting or responsible target practice — rather than on the victims and families whose lives have been destroyed by them.
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