In 2005, President George W. Bush signed into law the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a statute designed to protect gun makers, dealers, distributors, and importers from being sued "for the harm caused by the misuse of firearms by third parties, including criminals."
"Our laws should punish criminals who use guns to commit crimes," Bush declared, "not law-abiding manufacturers of lawful products." The law's passage was widely seen as a victory for the gun rights movement. But a new case out of Pennsylvania now asks whether the same law should be shot down for violating bedrock constitutional principles of federalism.
The case is Gustafson v. Springfield, Inc. It centers on the tragic death of a 13-year-old boy who was accidentally shot and killed by his friend. The friend falsely believed that the semiautomatic handgun he was holding was unloaded because the magazine had been removed. In fact, one round was still chambered.
The dead boy's family sued the gunmaker in state court. But the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County said the lawsuit was barred by the terms of the PLCAA, which preempts state tort law in this area. In a decision issued last week, however, a majority of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania not only reversed that ruling but also held that the PLCAA itself is unconstitutional.
"I recognize that state courts do not typically resolve claims involving the constitutionality of federal statutes," wrote Judge Deborah Kunselman. "However, that is the issue presented by the facts of the case before us. The Gustafsons filed a product-liability lawsuit under Pennsylvania common law, which, but for a federal statute, would have proceeded through our state courts like every other civil action. When their claims were abruptly dismissed under PLCAA, the question of that federal law's constitutionality fell squarely before us, and we must answer it."
The court's answer was that the PLCAA must fall. "Tort law is a decidedly state issue," Kunselman argued. "If courts allow Congress to regulate tort litigation involving these products, it could eventually regulate all litigation. This is not permitted under the Constitution of the United States' principles of federalism. As such," she concluded, the PLCAA "violates the Tenth Amendment."
Writing in dissent, Judge Judith Ference Olson charged the majority with missing the relevant constitutional provisions at play. "Congress had the express authority to enact PLCAA under its enumerated powers granted by the Commerce Clause to regulate interstate and foreign commerce," Olson argued. "Thus, the only way PLCAA could violate the Tenth Amendment is if the Act commands state legislatures to enact a particular law or state executives to administer a federal law. PLCAA does neither."
This is a case worth watching. For one thing, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania is not likely to have the last word on the matter. Eventually, this dispute will land in federal court. There is also the unusual political angle. As the case moves forward, gun control advocates—who would love to see firearms manufacturers face more product-liability lawsuits—will be embracing the sort of 10th Amendment arguments more commonly voiced by conservatives and libertarians. There's something here for practically everyone to argue about.