A lawsuit filed by one of the victims in the Sunset Park subway shooting could be a test case for a new state law that intends to make it easier to take gun companies to court in New York.
Ilene Steur, 49, has south Glock, which manufactured the 9-mm pistol that a man allegedly used to shoot her and nine other commuters on a crowded subway train in April. Steur’s attorneys argue that the company has not gone far enough to keep their guns out of the wrong hands.
For years, a federal law hath barred nearly all such lawsuits against the gun industry. But that could be changing, at least in New York. A state law signed by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year found a loophole to allow civil cases like Steur’s. Legal experts say it could set the standard for a new strategy to go after gun companies when their products end up at the scene of a crime.
But lawmakers and legal scholars are still unsure if this suit will stand up in court, because of the strong federal protections for companies like Glock and the burden of proof Steur’s attorneys would need to meet to hold the gunmaker liable.
“It’s hard to say at this stage,” Jake Charles, executive director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University told the Brian Lehrer show earlier this month, adding Steur and her attorneys would need to gather evidence to support their claims.
“It seems to be a bit of a legal stretch,” says Amy Swearer, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The suit paints a picture of a weapon that has become pervasive in American culture. It cites movies, TV shows and rap songs that have made Glock a household name, from appearances on “Law and Order” to lyrics in songs by TI and Tupac Shakur.
Steur wants Glock to change how it advertises and sells its guns, to prevent more shootings like the one that injured her. Her complaint argues that Glock appeals to prospective buyers with criminal intent, like the man who shot her, by promoting their guns’ easy concealment and high firepower. It also accuses the company of flooding the market with more weapons than it can bear to sell legally and not doing enough to prevent wrongful purchases.
Glock did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
‘You can’t file these suits anymore’
Complaints against gun companies used to be common. In the late 1990s, multiple cities, including Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles, south gunmakers and dealers for their role in the spread of violence.
There was also a push on the national level to regulate the sector. Before leaving office in 2000, President Bill Clinton reached an agreement with the manufacturer Smith & Wesson to add new safety measures to their designs, stop working with dealers whose sales were regularly traced to crime scenes and limit their magazine capacity to 10 rounds of ammunition.
But that deal was an anomaly. Other gun companies warned lawmakers that the constant threat of civil suits could put them out of business.
“That was sort of the point, was to kneecap this lawful industry and to make it more difficult, more expensive for them to engage in, again, this lawful industry,” says Swearer of the Heritage Foundation. “So, Congress stepped in to essentially say, ‘You can’t file those suits anymore.'”
In 2005, legislators passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, also known as the PLCAA, which shields the gun industry from lawsuits when their products are used in shootings, with just a handful of exceptions. Since then nearly all complaints against gun companies have been thrown out in court, including a suit brought by the city of New York against Beretta, a gun manufacturer.
But a few recent developments could reverse that trend.
In Connecticut, the gun manufacturer Remington reached a historic settlement with the families of the victims in the Sandy Hook shooting this past February, almost a decade after one of their guns was used to kill 20 children and six adults at an elementary school. And in New York, legislation passed last year made it legal to sue firearm companies if their marketing or sales practices endanger residents’ health or safety.
That law paved the way for Steur to sue Glock. It could provide a path forward for a new wave of lawsuits against the gun industry – both in New York and elsewhere.
While complaints against gun companies are typically barred, they are allowed when gunmakers or dealers advertise or sell their products in a way that violates a state’s own laws for firearm marketing and sales. New York, in essence, made a law for just that exception.
“I think then you will see a lot of other states that are more friendly to gun control and to these sorts of arguments, I think you will see more of these sorts of laws being passed, precisely to give room for those sorts of lawsuits circumventing the PLCAA,” Swearer says.
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie sponsored the bill that legalized civil suits against the gun industry in New York. He doesn’t know if it’s the best option to curb violence. But, in a moment when people are searching for solutions, he said it is one viable way to address the problem.