Federal Law on Immunity Statutes

Posted on May 21, 2012

In 2005, Congress passed and the President signed into law the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). The PLCAA prohibited a “qualified civil liability action” from being brought in any state or federal court and required immediate dismissal of any such action upon the date the PLCAA was enacted (October 26, 2005).1 A “qualified civil liability action” is a civil or administrative action or proceeding brought against a manufacturer or seller of a qualified product, or a trade association that has two or more members who are manufacturers or sellers of qualified products, for relief, if the action results from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a qualified product by the person or a third party, with certain exceptions.2 A firearm, including an antique firearm, ammunition, or a component of a firearm or ammunition may each be a qualified product, as long as it has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.3 “Unlawful misuse” is defined as conduct that violates a statute, ordinance or regulation.4 Actions excluded from the definition of “qualified civil liability action” include those:

  • Against a transferor convicted of knowingly transferring a firearm with the knowledge that it will be used to commit a crime of violence (so long as the action is brought by the person harmed by the transfer);
  • Against a transferor for negligence per se or negligent entrustment (the latter is defined in the Act to mean supplying a firearm or ammunition to a person the seller knows or reasonably should know is likely to, and does, use the firearm or ammunition in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury);
  • Against a manufacturer or seller who knowingly violated a state or federal law applicable to the sale or marketing of firearms or ammunition if the violation of law was the proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought;
  • For breach of contract or warranty in connection with the purchase of the firearm or ammunition;
  • For death, physical injuries or property damage resulting directly from a defect in design or manufacture of the product, when used as intended or in a reasonably foreseeable manner, except that where the discharge of the product was caused by a volitional act that constituted a criminal offense, such act shall be considered the sole proximate cause of any resulting death, personal injuries or property damage; or
  • Commenced by the Attorney General to enforce certain federal firearms laws.5

The scope of the PLCAA and its exceptions is being tested in the courts in several pending cases. In District of Columbia v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp.,6 the court affirmed a judgment on the pleadings in favor of defendants (various manufacturers, importers and distributors of firearms), concluding that the District’s claims under the Assault Weapon Manufacturing Strict Liability Act were barred by the PLCAA.7 By contrast, in 2007 the Court of Appeals of Indiana upheld the denial of a motion to dismiss a suit against the gun industry brought by the City of Gary, Indiana. The court found that the PLCAA did not apply to the City’s case.8 Similarly, in 2005 a federal district court denied a motion to dismiss a suit brought by the City of New York against gun manufacturers and distributors alleging a public nuisance, finding that the case was not precluded by the PLCAA.9

In addition, the PLCAA makes it unlawful for any licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun unless the transferee is provided with a secure gun storage or safety device.10 The Act also immunizes any person who is in lawful possession and control of a handgun and who uses a secure gun storage or safety device with the handgun, from a civil action for damages resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a handgun by an unauthorized third party, if at the time the handgun had been made inoperable by the use of a secure gun storage or safety device.11 For more information about the provisions of the PLCAA dealing with locking devices, please see the Locking Devices section.

  1. 15 U.S.C. § 7902. []
  2. 15 U.S.C. § 7903. []
  3. Id. []
  4. Id. []
  5. 15 U.S.C. § 7903(5)(A). []
  6. 2008 D.C. App. LEXIS 4 (D.C. Cir. 2008). []
  7. See also Ileto v. Glock, Inc., 421 F. Supp.2d 1274 (C.D. Cal. 2006) (granting defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings under PLCAA). []
  8. Smith & Wesson Corp. v. City of Gary, 875 N.E.2d 422 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007). []
  9. City of New York v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp., 401 F. Supp.2d 244, 298 (E.D.N.Y. 2005), appeal pending. []
  10. 18 U.S.C. § 922(z). []
  11. 18 U.S.C. § 922(z)(3). []