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California lawmakers unveil plan to hold gun makers liable for shootings

A man waves a a "Come and Take It" flag in support of military-style semi-automatic weapon ownership during an anti-vaccination protest rally near City Hall. (David McNew/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to target the gun industry through private lawsuits is coming together in legislation unveiled Tuesday that would allow gun violence survivors and other citizens to sue firearm manufacturers and dealers.

In December, the governor called on the Legislature and Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to model legislation after a Texas law that bans most abortions after six weeks and gives private people the ability to sue providers and clinics as a tool to help enforce it. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to block the law, and Newsom responded by pledging to implement the the same legislative prototype in California to go after firearms.

Assembly Bill 1594 would hand the state, local governments, gun violence survivors and victims’ families the power to pursue legal action against “irresponsible, reckless or negligent gun manufacturers, importers and dealers,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco, one of three Democrats pushing the plan. The proposal predates the Texas bill and replicates a 2021 New York gun control law that targets manufacturers, Ting said, but still “gets at the spirit of what the governor called for.”

“The governor was asking for the ability to sue the gun manufactures, the gun industry, and we believe this achieves that,” Ting said. “This puts the power back in the hands of people.”

The bill would leverage a loophole in federal law that largely shields gun manufacturers and dealers from liability when their products are involved in a crime, Ting said. He noted that companies and sellers are still liable under state regulations, and AB 1594 aims to hold them accountable to those in California such as required rigorous background checks and a ban on sales to people prohibited from owning firearms. The proposed law would ensure distributors and manufacturers are not causing a “public nuisance” with their products or “engaging in unfair business practices,” Ting said.

“What we are quite simply trying to do is just to make sure gun manufacturers are really held responsible for the harm that guns do on our streets everyday here in California,” he added. “We think that if the manufacturers, importers and dealers will take greater responsibility that will make our streets much safer.”

Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) said he also plans to introduce a second bill this week that targets assault weapons and “ghost gun” distributors through private legal action, which Newsom explicitly called for in his December statement.

“If we can sue car dealers, if we can sue lawyers for malpractice, if we can sue a barrage of individuals, why should not the people of this state of California have the same ability to sue a gun manufacturer?” Gipson said.

The efforts could still prove risky despite California’s affinity for gun control, said Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson. Unlike abortion access, Levinson said, gun rights are explicitly written into the Constitution. That means not only could the Supreme Court strike down any new law targeting the industry, but Newsom and the Legislature might unintentionally welcome legal scrutiny for policies already on the books.

“He’s not even proposing a law that is clearly unconstitutional, but it is a little risky because he is going to call attention, an enormous amount of attention, to those restrictions and subject them to challenge,” Levinson said. “And we know with this particular court, that’s risky business.”

Levinson said the effort will still be a win either way for Newsom, who overwhelmingly thwarted a recall effort in September and now has more freedom to test his political boundaries.

“It’s very Newsomian. He just cherishes being first in the nation, and this is popular in California. And the more he has first in the country, first in the nation on his résumé, the happier he is,” Levinson said.

“He resoundedly swatted down this recall and now he’s taking his political capital out for a little ride.”

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