A federal law that protects firearms manufacturers from lawsuits is unconstitutional and so cannot block a Pennsylvania family from suing an iconic gun maker over the shooting death of their teenage son, a state appeals court panel has ruled.
That decision, handed down by the Superior Court, is most certain to be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court and could become fodder for a federal court fight.
The Brady Campaign, a nationwide group that advocates against gun violence, called the decision “a victory for gun rights victims” and said the Superior Court is the first appeals court in the U.S. to find the Protection of the Lawful Commerce in Arms Act unconstitutional.
The ruling, outlined in an opinion by Judge Deborah Kunselman, marks at least a temporary win for Mark and Leah Gustafson who are suing Springfield Inc. over the March 2016 shooting death of their 13-year-old son James in Westmoreland County.
James, also known as J.R., was killed when a 14-year-old friend fired a semiautomatic pistol made by Springfield after mistakenly believing it was unloaded. The other teen had removed the ammunition clip from the gun, but a bullet remained in the firing chamber. In their suit, the Gustafsons claimed there were no adequate warnings on the pistol to inform the other boy that it might still be loaded even after the clip was removed.
The 14-year-old later pleaded guilty in juvenile court to a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
The constitutionality of the federal law came into play when Springfield invoked it to try to sink the Gustafson suit. The case was appealed to Kunsleman’s court after a Westmoreland County judge ruled that the Arms Act did bar the family’s suit.
In concluding otherwise, Kunselman found the Arms Act violates the U.S. Constitution by usurping a power that rightly rests with each individual state. She wrote that in passing the act “Congress…undoubtedly undertook a radical reformation of the traditional state-federal balance” that amounts to “federal overreach.”
“The constitutional safeguards that override the PLCAA are the structural pillars of American government. These principles ensure that local matters remain under the local authority of the states, and they prevent the federal government from becoming all powerful,” Kunselman wrote. “Congressional tort-reform bills, like the PLCAA, have no place within that system; tort law and statutes reforming it are an exercise of police power reserved to the states under the 10th Amendment.”
She sent the Gustafson suit back to the county court for further action. While the Superior Court ruling keeps that case alive, it does no guarantee the couple will win if their suit goes before a jury.
Still, Jonathan Lowy, the lawyer for the Gustafsons and a vice president of the Brady Campaign, said the state court’s ruling, guarantees that “gun makers and sellers are no longer immune from the consequences of their unreasonable, irresponsible actions that lead to injury and death.”
“This historic victory takes us a giant stride closer to ensuring that victims of gun violence can hold the companies that profit from the pain of the American people accountable,” said campaign President Kris Brown.
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