10/30/2013 12:17 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Gun Industry Doesn't Deserve Immunity Shield

When Jennifer Magnano, a mother of three from Connecticut, decided to end her abusive marriage, she received a restraining order protecting her from her husband, Scott.

The court's order also barred Mr. Magnano from purchasing a firearm and any attempt to buy a gun from a licensed dealer would have been blocked by a background check. Not to be deterred, her husband went to a gun store, and asked to see two handguns. The store clerk handed him the two guns and corresponding ammunition, and then went to the back of the store, leaving Magnano alone and unsupervised.

It's sadly no surprise what happened next -- Mr. Magnano left the store with a Glock handgun and ammunition. About a month later, he went to his wife's home and shot her to death. Her 15- year-old son, David, heard the gunshots, and ran out to find his mother's body slumped on the front steps. Her 9-year-old daughter, Emily, was also in the house at the time, and heard the shots.

After the murder, police traced the weapon and discovered it had been reported stolen by the gun store, though only several days after the theft. The store's manager stated that he thought Magnano was "suspicious," but that he had nonetheless given him two guns and ammunition while unsupervised and without asking for identification, and then waited several days before reporting the gun stolen. Had the seller acted responsibly, Magnano would never have been able to obtain the gun he would soon use to murder Jennifer and take his own life.

In a civil lawsuit filed in Connecticut, the administrator of Jennifer's estate attempted to obtain some measure of justice for the children, arguing that the gun seller's negligence had contributed to the Jennifer's death. Had the seller been in any business other than the gun business, they would have had a good case. But thanks to a unique and unprecedented law passed by Congress called the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act," sellers and manufacturers of the most dangerous consumer products, firearms, enjoy almost total protection from liability when they act irresponsibly.

As the Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence put it in a new report released this week, "common sense would suggest leaving a 'suspicious' person alone with guns and ammunition would constitute actionable negligence, but under the PLCAA this truth was denied."

When the gun store's lawyers asked for dismissal, saying "Congress was clear, these cases must be dismissed," the court agreed. But what is PLCAA, and how does this little known law protect the worst actors in the gun industry?

In 2005, Congress passed PLCAA, granting the gun industry immunity in state and federal court from civil liability in most negligence and products liability actions. At the time, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which fought hard for passage of the bill, called it "vitally important" legislation. Although there are exceptions in the law, it has been broadly interpreted to preclude most negligence lawsuits. The result is that -- unlike the makers of chain saws, knives, automobiles, drugs, alcohol or even cigarettes -- gun manufacturers and sellers have a lesser obligation to act with reasonable care for public safety.

When Congress passed the legislation, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), the chief sponsor of the bill and, at the time, an NRA board member, stated that "this bill will not prevent a single victim from obtaining relief for wrongs done to them by anyone in the gun industry." But in fact, PLCAA has stopped almost all cases, including many others much like Jennifer's, in their tracks, even when gun dealers and manufacturers acted in a fashion that would qualify as negligent if it involved other products.

Most gun dealers are responsible businesspeople, and would be little impacted by repealing this broad-based immunity granted to the entire gun industry. According to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms report, 1 percent of gun dealers sell 57 percent of the guns used to commit criminal acts, and 85 percent of dealers sold no guns used in a crime.

Good gun companies and dealers don't need special protection from the law, and bad ones don't deserve it. That's why I've introduced legislation -- the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act -- to ensure that the victims of gun violence are allowed to have their day in court, and provide justice to the victims in both criminal and civil courts.

No industry deserves the right to act with reckless disregard for the public safety.