On September 28, 2020, a Pennsylvania court stripped the gun industry of some hefty legal armour it has enjoyed since 2005. The court ruled that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) is unconstitutional. The ruling followed an attempt by the defendant in a wrongful death suit, Springfield Armory, to skirt responsibility for the death of a Pennsylvania teen. 

The Lawsuit That Triggered This Opinion

The lawsuit was filed in March 2018 by parents of the 13-year-old boy who was killed in an accidental shooting at their home in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania. A friend of the boy removed the magazine, then fired the gun at the plaintiffs’ son, thinking it was unloaded. However, there was a round in the chamber, and when the gun was fired, it killed the boy.

The parents argued in their complaint that the gun maker should have implemented safety features to prevent the fatal accident from occurring. They argue that Springfield Armory could have used magazine disconnect safeties in their weapons, technology that is inexpensive and feasible to implement.

When Springfield Armory tried to shield itself by summoning the PLCAA—the go-to shield afforded to the gun industry for decades—the Pennsylvania judge in the wrongful death suit refused to dismiss, calling the act unconstitutional.

History of the PLCAA

Bowing to pressure from the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, President George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) in 2005. The act has served as a virtual blanket of immunity for gun manufacturers and gun dealers seeking protection from civil lawsuits for damages stemming from both unlawful use and misuse of guns.

Gun industry lobbyists pushed for the legislation after finding themselves in the firing line of lawsuits from more than 40 cities throughout the late 90s and early 2000s when gun violence experienced a significant surge.

Far-Reaching Repercussions

Legal experts at The Trace anticipate that if the Pennsylvania court’s ruling survives a state appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court might be the next judicial body to consider this aspect of the gun industry’s accountability for deaths caused by guns.

Considering data from The American Journal of Medicine, our country experiences over six times the number of annual, unintentional gun deaths, as compared with other high-income countries.

The article’s author considers the possibility of a federal-level anti-PLCAA ruling would leave gun industry companies vulnerable to product-liability lawsuits—just as their predecessors in tobacco, automotive, and pharmaceutical industries have faced in recent years.

Sara Stephens is a freelance writer who has developed a hefty portfolio of work across several industries, with a strong emphasis on law, technology, and marketing. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, as well as various technology and consumer publications, both print and online. Sara also works as a freelance book editor, having developed and edited manuscripts for bestselling and novice authors alike, and as a verbal strategist for a Miami branding consultancy.