The National Rifle Association rarely praises a Democratic presidential candidate, but it did just that after Bernie Sanders defended his vote for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act during the Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Mich.
“Sen. Sanders was spot-on in his comments about gun manufacturer liability,” the NRA said in a tweet after the debate. The NRA should like what Sanders said. His arguments in favor of the 2005 bill often mirror talking points the NRA used to help pass the legislation.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton used the law to criticize Sanders, but she went overboard. Politfact rated false her claim that the law “wholly protected” the gun industry “from any kind of liability.”
So, what does the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act actually do, and is Sanders’ support something that should cause heartburn among the liberals he’s courting in the primary contests against Clinton?
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Here’s what Sanders said about the law at the Flint debate: “If you go to a gun store and you legally purchase a gun, and then three days later, if you go out and start killing people, is the point of this lawsuit to hold the gun shop owner or the manufacturer of that gun liable? If that is the point, I have to tell you I disagree.”
That would end the gun industry in America, he said.
While Clinton was incorrect to suggest the law grants wholesale immunity against lawsuits to gun manufacturers, it goes much further than Sanders implied. The key to understanding this law is the context in which it was passed.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, anti-gun activists were increasingly taking gun manufacturers to court, but these weren’t cases about individual legal sales gone bad. Instead the cases alleged a pattern of behavior by manufacturers that resulted in a flood of weapons diverted into illegal markets.
The legal theory pressed by the cases was that gun manufacturers, either intentionally or negligently, contributed to the public nuisance of gun violence. New York City, for instance, was preparing a mammoth case against 14 gun makers that alleged, among other things, that gun makers supplied more handguns to dealers in Southern states than legal markets could bear, knowing that lax gun laws there would mean those guns would end up being sold illegally in Northern cities.
This case, and others like it, were made moot by passage of the law. These weren’t cases that would, as Sanders argued, end the gun industry in America, but cases that would force it to change marketing tactics and monitor the behavior of its dealers more closely,
As Politifact noted, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act doesn’t provide blanket immunity from lawsuits, but its provisions are so broad and the exemptions so narrow that the effect is practically the same.